On 8 January 2019, storm Norma hit Lebanon and the 360 settlement sites hosting Syrian refugee communities, affecting more than 11,300 people, including 6,000 children, amid slow responses from organizations offering aid to those in need. The extreme weather conditions resulted in roadblocks to and from the already overcrowded and unorganized camps. This worsened matters for the camps’ residents who already suffer from poor healthcare and lack of medical services. Refugees living within these camps have long been dealing with malnutrition and lack of access to healthcare. The storm exacerbated these already-poor conditions, devastating refugees’ temporary homes, often nothing more than a poorly set-up tent, with freezing temperatures, rain, floods and snow. The storm thus put the lives of over 50,000 people in potential danger, especially pregnant women, elderly, infants and those suffering from chronic diseases. The severity of this reality was highlighted during the storm as patients suffering from kidney and heart problems, among other chronic diseases, were left untreated during the initial period.
Speaking to a social worker who works with an international non-governmental organization (INGO) operating in Bekaa, Defenders for Medical Impartiality (DMI) was informed that over 200,000 refugees reside in tents in Bekaa, the area most affected by the storm in Lebanon. More than 2,000 people lost shelter because of flooding, while others saw their belongings swept away and their tents buried under mud. In other areas in Lebanon, such as Akkar, 400 tents hosting refugee families were destroyed, with a further 500 people evacuated from their settlements. Such events put the lives of camp residents in danger as they are no longer receiving the medicine or food they need to survive. For example, Mahmoud Said, a 43-year-old refugee worried that his one-month-old infant, Maha, is in imminent danger because her mother is no longer lactating. Additionally, more than 50 people were injured while an eight-year-old girl named Fatima lost her life after drowning in a flooded river.
Organizations offering relief services have been working closely with the Lebanese Red Cross to send more than 45 ambulances and 300 volunteers to the devastated areas. They have delivered more than a hundred blood units to patients in urgent need, while helping nine pregnant women deliver their babies, with one even delivering inside the ambulance. Additionally, 45 ambulances were tasked with transporting people suffering from urgent medical conditions, including patients suffering from heart attacks as well as dialysis patients to specialized medical centers. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs also created an emergency task force to tackle the issue. In total, more than 21,000 individuals were reportedly affected by the storm and the emergency task force created in the area saw INGOs provide emergency relief for the majority of them. INTERSOS, for example, provided aid for more than 13,000 people affected by the storm, while the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) covered a further 8,700 cases.
While January’s storm was devastating due to low temperatures, rain and snow, this wasn’t the first time Syrian refugees in Lebanon saw their lives threatened by natural emergency situations. According to UNHCR, “flooded shelters are a familiar sight in Lebanon’s mountainous areas during winter, which also brings heavy snowfall and freezing temperatures”. Concerned with the continuous lack of preparedness and proper emergency planning, DMI calls on the Lebanese government and UNHCR to ensure that refugees residing in camps have regular access to proper healthcare services. DMI also calls on the Lebanese government, UNHCR and NGOs operating in the country to have emergency plans readily available in the future to provide needed services for those in need in times of natural catastrophes. It is vital for both the internal and external actors involved in the Syrian war to end the conflict and allow the displaced individuals a safe return to their homes.