thursday, october 4:
What started out as a peaceful protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the southern Province of Deraa in March 2011 has degenerated into a regional interethnic civil war.
The growing violence, sectarian tensions and economic hardship has forced more and more Syrian families to flee not only their homes with around 1.2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs); but also their country with over 294,000 refugees in neighbouring countries, according to the latest report from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
With the escalating conflict now also hindering aid agencies going into Syria, how can ShelterBox distribute aid and help people in need?
With the restricted access to Syria, we have explored other avenues through the surrounding nations of Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, but each has its challenges and limitations.
There are ShelterBoxes prepositioned with the Jordanian Red Crescent in the capital Ammam, which were originally going to be used to set up transit camps along the border to accommodate the influx of Syrian families into Jordan. Existing transit camps have been criticised by the international community for inadequate standards resulting in the Jordanian Government becoming wary of setting up future transit camps.
'The Jordanian Red Crescent is working on alternative solutions with the Government of Jordan to set up a transit camp,' said ShelterBox Operations Coordinator Tom Lay.
'Currently the security situation in Syria does not allow for a safe return by families and there is every chance they will become displaced again and even victimised for having received international assistance.
'Therefore we will use the relationships between the Jordanian and Syrian Red Crescent societies, the latter being granted the most humanitarian access in Syria of any humanitarian organisations, to distribute our boxes on our behalf to families attempting to return to their homes in Syria once the situation allows for this.'
Safety of ShelterBox Response Teams (SRTs) and the practicalities of logistics are constraints for ShelterBox in the Arab region.
How does ShelterBox carry out need and site assessments as well as transport aid in such a restricted region?
The Turkish Government is retaining complete control of the assistance to refugees crossing their border, but has issued a list of materials that they require in order to meet the needs, distributing it to the humanitarian community in Turkey, including the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
'IOM's Chief of Mission has asked us if we would be willing to explore options in partnership with them including winterised tents, kitchen sets, blankets and stoves,' said Operations Coordinator Fionn Mckee. 'It is very much a concept stage and there are no guarantees the Turkish Authorities will accept aid under any conditions but is a good possible avenue for the future.'
ShelterBox is looking to develop partnerships with civil society organisations (CSO) based in Western Iraq in order to establish, and where appropriate, support this region’s emergency shelter needs, particularly as winter draws closer.
A key strength of ShelterBox is its flexibility to operate alongside the giant UN agencies as well as small community based organisations. Separate from the politics, our approach lets us find and address the needs of communities across countries and territories through a neutral and impartial engagement strategy based on humanitarian principles. In this way, we sometimes make the impossible, possible.
Fear of registration
In Lebanon, the on-going fear of destabilisation of the country and continuing fear towards registration amongst the Syrian families is meaning the estimated refugee population is far lower than the reality.
An SRT travelled to Lebanon in August to explore a response with various agencies and contacts including the Lebanese Ministry for Social Affairs. However, due to negativity towards camps, there currently is no position for ShelterBox working with the Government at this time.
ShelterBox is seeking alternative avenues however it must balance its response across the religious sects and understand the potential consequences of not doing so.
'We have to stay neutral and not be seen to be taking sides in Lebanon to deliver aid' said ShelterBox Operations Coordinator Alice Jefferson.
'We are currently liaising with a number of organisations including Handicap International who have teams on the ground reporting that hard shelter is being prioritised by the humanitarian community.'
ShelterBox follows humanitarian organisational principles that are beneficiary-led; with these numerous issues and restrictions in the region it seems that currently food, medicine and protection are immediate priorities.
However, with the ending of the harvest's income for renting or home improvement, impending freezing conditions with winter fast-approaching, guaranteed influx to a saturated real estate market and lack of other international nongovernmental organisations' shelter provision, the need for shelter will become more and more important.
wednesday, august 22:
ShelterBox’s response to the crisis in Syria has been postponed following a spate of violence and kidnappings in Lebanon’s capital Beirut that began on 16 August.
ShelterBox Response Team (SRT) members Alice Jefferson (UK) and Phil Duloy (UK and USA) had been working with ministers in the Lebanese government to facilitate the importation of ShelterBoxes.
They had also been planning potential distributions to Syrian refugees with several international non-governmental organisations (INGOS), including Handicap International, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR); and a consortium of eight local NGOs operating in the central Bekaa Valley. The Response Team had submitted a proposal to Lebanon's Council of Ministers through an influential contact on Wednesday afternoon.
Later that same afternoon the armed wing of the Muqdad clan made good on its promise to retaliate to the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) kidnapping of their fellow clansman, Hassan Muqdad, some time earlier.
Details are unclear but reports state that around 30 people were seized in the northern parts of the Bekaa Valley and in southern Beirut.
‘Members of the Muqdad clan wearing balaclavas and holding automatic weapons were interviewed on live television, saying they were targeting citizens of countries and even local individuals who they deemed supportive of Syria's insurgency,’ said Phil. ‘Their list included the very contact we had just been meeting with, who was due to pass our aid request to the government.
‘The Council of Ministers had just one more session before a break for Eid, a national holiday lasting two and a half weeks, and we knew that security issues were pushing the importation of our aid off the agenda.
‘Having found no other secure routes for ShelterBox aid in to Lebanon, we reluctantly made the decision to wait for a better chance and focus our efforts on Jordanian routes.’
This wave of kidnappings in Lebanon has raised fears that the fight for control over Syria will exacerbate tensions in a country already polarised by sectarian divisions.
Alice and Phil were able to meet with refugee families during their time in Lebanon to discuss their most pressing concerns.
'We have been looking at how we can collaboratively help relieve the pressure on Lebanese families who have been hosting refugees in their overcrowded homes,' said Alice.
One of their contacts, Dr Abdullah El Tassi, was trained at a medical school in New York. He is a member of a coalition of eight locally-administered NGOs, which have been distributing food, water and medical supplies to those affected by the conflict, as well as offering medical treatment for people wounded fighting in Syria.
Through his contacts in the local NGOs, the SRT has been able to carry out need assessments in the central Bekaa Valley around Zahle and has been assessing suitable distribution options to refugee families in need there.
Abdullah introduced the SRT to one family who had spent the past 17 months moving from one place to another due to the fighting.
'The 48-year-old husband, 43-year-old wife and their eight children have moved five times in total as each of their homes has successively been destroyed,’ said Alice. ‘Six months ago their son was shot by a sniper through his wrist; four months ago a missile hit their home taking away all of their belongings; then last week they were finally forced to move as the residential area they were staying in was subject to a massive aerial bombing.’
‘They are now staying in an unfinished building where they are using rubble to block the windows and any curtains they can find to give them privacy from the other families,’ said Phil. ‘Although it is hot now, with winter fast-approaching and the area around Bekaa Valley being prone to heavy snow, it is important to move these people into warm shelters.’
ShelterBox plans on distributing emergency shelter and other lifesaving supplies to families in need through the local NGOs it has been working with, bringing them shelter and dignity. Once security is restored plans will be made for another Response Team to return to continue with the deployment.
wednesday, august 8:
Ongoing violence in Syria over the past 15 months has caused a significant number of refugees to flee across the border to neighbouring countries Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
A ShelterBox Response Team (SRT) has been in Lebanon's capital Beirut assessing suitable options to help relieve the increasing pressure on host Lebanese families, who are sharing their often overcrowded homes with Syrian refugees.
'The situation is very dynamic,' said SRT member Alice Jefferson (UK). 'It is very difficult to fully ascertain the numbers of refugees currently in Lebanon.'
It is thought that Lebanon is almost at capacity in hosting the refugee influx with the numbers continuously rising. There was a significant spike seen in the number of refugees arriving in Lebanon during the 17-18 July violence in Damascus in southwest Syria. Further significant influxes occur when violence is centred in Syria's western city Homs, due to its proximity with the Lebanese border.
'The host family support here is incredible as many households have opened their doors to multiple Syrian family groups,' said Alice. 'But we are looking at how to decongest these homes, relieving host families, and house those who have fled the continuous violence as well as try to restore some sense of normality to their lives.'
ShelterBox has been coordinating their efforts with the Ministry for Social Affairs; the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR); and various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working at a local level, some of which are already providing food and medical support to refugees.
'We are looking at providing contingency stocks with UNHCR if violence suddenly escalates and there is another major influx across the border,' commented Alice.