As Syria’s civil war drags on towards its fourth year without an end in sight, the plight of over two million refugees has worsened as the region faces its most bitter winter in living memory.
A million refugees are in camps in Turkey and Jordan; another million in Lebanon have not been allowed to set up camps due to fears that they will remain and cause unrest in the already chaotic country.
Around 800,000 Syrian refugees are registered in Lebanon with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, although their actual number is estimated at over a million.
The chief fear in Lebanon is that they will remain for years to come and exacerbate tensions between the Sunni and Shia communities.
The precedent they are trying to avoid is that of the Palestinians who arrived in Lebanon during Israel’s War of Independence 65 years ago and stayed on, taking sides in the country’s civil war and using it as a base for attacks on Israel.
For those reasons, most of the Syrian refugees who cannot afford to rent homes in Lebanon have been forced to live on building sites, abandoned buildings or out in the open. As snow covered the Middle East this week from Cairo to Riyadh, dozens of cases of babies and young children dying from hypothermia were reported.
While the population of Jordan — at six million — is not much larger than that of Lebanon, the Jordanians are more used to sheltering refugees peacefully, having provided sanctuary to over a million Iraqi refugees.
Jordan is sheltering around half a million Syrians in camps near the border where conditions are far from ideal but there is at least a enough food and medical help. “We have dealt with large numbers of refugees before,” said a senior Jordanian official, “and we hope that with international support we can handle this new wave.”
Despite this confidence, officials in the Hashemite kingdom are concerned that the different sides in the conflict, whether the Assad regime and its Hizbollah supporters, or the jihadist rebels, may take this opportunity to undermine the relative calm that has existed in the pro-West Jordan for decades.
Turkey has also set up camps for half a million refugees and has not needed any outside assistance. There is, however, concern over the effect of thousands of al-Qaeda fighters making their way through Turkey to fight in Syria.