People on the move in the Middle East vulnerable again this winter

As the sixth winter since the Syrian refugee crisis began sets in, the need for winterisation support to vulnerable people on the move has again come to the fore. As detailed in MMP’s latest Mixed Migration Monthly Summary, November saw local media report the weather-related deaths of two children fleeing Mosul at the Rajm Slebi border crossing between Iraq and Syria, warnings of expected hypothermia cases at the Berm between Jordan and Syria, deadly rough seas in the Mediterranean and relocations of refugees and other migrants to warmer accommodation in Greece.

Photo: Serbia blankets – Info Park – Miodrag Cakic

Harsh conditions can be expected to bring further negative impacts this winter, as has happened in previous years. Winter storms have heavily affected refugee settlements in the past, and could easily recur again this season. Storms Alexia (December 2013) and Huda/Zeina (January 2015) swept across the Middle East damaging shelters and infrastructure and limiting the supply of emergency relief.

Fortunately winterisation response efforts are improving, with humanitarian responders learning year on year from past experience and establishing technical guidance. Organisations are increasingly ready to respond with the provision of emergency shelters and winter response packages, which include items such as sleeping bags, thermal blankets, raincoats, socks, clothes, and footwear. Cash too has become an important modality to respond to winter needs.

Refugees and other migrants, on the move or in protracted situations for multiple seasons, have slowly accumulated equipment and techniques to cope with the cold. Yet they also resort to negative coping mechanisms to survive the winter, reducing food consumption and taking on debt to pay for fuel, shelter and clothing.

Concerns are even greater for the newly displaced, numbers of whom have increased significantly in November. This winter coincides with major escalations in conflict in both Syria and Iraq. While plans to respond are in place and winter needs are clearly recognised, funding for winterisation programmes in the region remains well below what is necessary. As of mid-December, the largest funding gap for UNHCR’s Mosul response was for its winter programme.

Not only has the escalation in conflict caused new displacement, it has also facilitated returns, as control of areas changes and stability is restored in different places, particularly in Iraq. But with houses and infrastructure damaged and destroyed, and electricity and fuel in short supply, returnees too are likely to face a tough winter. It is a problem Afghan returnees are already facing as a major returns programme coincides with the onset of a harsh winter and inadequate shelter conditions.

Despite the fact that this winter brings new challenges, and preparedness is slowly improving, some problems remain the same: without the necessary funding commitments people on the move are likely to feel the consequences of the cold once again this year.