Without registration, they are ineligible for most international aid and many have no way to make the trek to the nearest UNHCR office to sign up.
On Thursday night, the mayor of the Syrian city of Qara stood in the bitter cold alongside men from his town, located across the border in the mountainous Qalamoun region. An ongoing regime assault has sent nearly all of the town’s 40,000 inhabitants to Arsal.
“Only one percent of these people are registered with the United Nations,” said the 45-year-old mayor, who gave his name as Amaar, “and only half of them have papers to get past the Lebanese army checkpoint in the first place.”
The nearest U.N. office is in Zahle, Lebanon, more than an hour’s drive away. To get there, they must get past a Lebanese army checkpoint known for arbitrarily turning back Syrians for a lack of proper identification. Then there is the cost of a van or four-wheel-drive vehicle needed to take an entire family down the treacherous mountain road: $100, an unthinkable sum for most refugees.
Amaar said only half of the new arrivals to Arsal are living in proper homes; the rest sleep in tents or cars in the snow.
“The number one request of the [Arsal] refugees is a local U.N. office,” said Haitham Hemeida, an Arsal native who works for an aid organization funded by Syrians living abroad. “The U.N. used to have an office in Arsal, but they closed it just before [the battle for] Qusayr,” a reference to the Syrian border town won by Lebanese Hezbollah and the Syrian army over the summer.
“Now we need them more than ever, and they aren’t here.”
According to Lisa Abou Khaled, a public relations associate with the UNHCR’s Bekaa Valley office, centralizing operations in Zahle was the only way to manage the overwhelming numbers of refugees flooding across the border.
“When we first started, we were doing mobile registration: going to locations where there were refugees and raising awareness of the importance of registering with UNHCR. Now this is impossible with the numbers,” she said. The Arsal municipality has started its own preliminary registration process for refugees, so that the U.N. can get an idea of the numbers, and partner with local and international NGOs to address specific needs.
Abou Khaled estimates that about 25,000 refugees from Arsal have already registered with the U.N. But locals say there are easily over 60,000 Syrian refugees in the town, and many more are expected as government and rebel forces continue their battle for the towns along the Homs-Damascus highway.
Socks, Sandals and Snow
On the edge of a tent settlement in Arsal Thursday night, a group of boys and adult men stood around a campfire warming their hands and talking like old friends, though most first met here. But the festive mood did not conceal their predicament. Most were wearing just socks and sandals in the snow.
“We fled from Homs to Yabroud, from Yabroud to Qara, and now from Qara to Arsal,” said Abdel Hamid, 13. When asked what he thought was next, he said they would go “into the ground.” His friends giggled along.
In a nearby nylon tent anchored by tires and barely insulated by blankets, 37-year-old Randa tended to a small diesel stove, trying to shield her six children and three grandchildren from the cold. They had no boots, gloves or hats.
“We want to go to Zahle to register, but it’s too expensive, and we are worried about the checkpoint. We only registered with the local municipality,” she said.
They pass their days and nights drinking tea and eating sunflower seeds, the cheapest food available. Neither Randa’s husband (who is blind) or her son-in-law can find work.
“I’m freezing,” said Iman, her 15-year-old daughter, with a pained smile. She was still wearing stylish—now impractical—skinny jeans from the day they fled in mid-November. She pulled out her phone to show a video taken as they drove away, depicting her town, devastated by shelling, with not a person in sight. She spends her days and nights in the family’s cold tent, she said, isolated from friends and with no schooling.
In this makeshift settlement, there is not enough fuel to heat water for washing. If there was, there would still be no place to shower in private. The nearest bathroom is comprised of six squat toilets in the snowy ground, with steel cones wrapped around them for a measure of privacy.
“They run out of diesel sometimes and can’t heat the tents,” said Hemeida, the local relief worker, eyeing the stove in the middle of their tent. “Last night 24 people went to the local field hospital with severe diarrhea and other symptoms, and one of them is in critical condition. And there has been no water here since yesterday.”
In the corner, Randa’s husband sat with a cloak around him, silent and wearing sunglasses to cover his blindness. Still technically a Syrian government employee, he is afraid to say anything that could put his family in danger.
Asked what it would take for him and his family to return to Qara, he was blunt. “We just want security. As soon as the government says to come back, we go.”