Refugees face death camped out in bitter Lebanon winter

The Times

Bel Trew, Bekaa Valley

For the first time since they fled Syria five years ago, many refugees fear they will not make it through another bitter Lebanese winter.

Raya, 97, begs for scraps in the Bekaa Valley to survive. “We are barely eating at the moment,” her daughter, Khaldia, 63, said as she tended her sick mother on the ground. “We have to beg neighbours for a bit of stew or vegetables.”

Their tent, made from wood and scraps of plastic fabric, is leaking: they cannot afford the materials to patch it up before the predicted snowstorms.

“These last few months have been the worst,” Khaldia said. “We sleep without eating sometimes. My mother needs medicine, we need money for heat and monthly rent for the tent. We are in massive debt.”

The UN offers refugees a £20 monthly food allowance but Raya, who has a lung condition, and Khaldia have received nothing since October. Raya’s infirm son Mohamed, 67, and his wife, who live in the same tent, have not had UN assistance in a year. For the first time since they fled the Homs countryside, the family fear they will not make it through the winter.

Officials at the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, told The Times that 2017 had been the hardest year yet for the million Syrians who fled the civil war to Lebanon. Nearly 60 per cent of Syrian refugee households are living in extreme poverty, according to a UNHCR report last week. They exist on £2 a day; not enough to ensure their survival. The same report said that 87 per cent of refugees were also in debt. Most, like the Khalil family, rely on aid, which is drying up after seven years of war.


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Food runs short amid squalor of Libya’s detention centres

The TimesIn Libya’s migrant detention centres, they call it knife sleeping. Locked in windowless warehouses, the migrants have so little space they sleep in shifts. The men lie pressed back to back like cutlery stacked in a drawer.

At the Triq al-Siqqa centre in Tripoli, the putrid smell of 1,300 people living in close quarters in the searing summer heat hits like a punch to the stomach. The air is so thick it is nearly impossible to breathe. In the main cell, 700 men crouch on the floor like animals in a pen. Two barred gates separate them from the outside.

Some of the detainees, who come from Africa, southeast Asia and the Middle East, have been living like this for eight months waiting to be repatriated. With almost no exceptions, Libya does not process asylum claims.

Bel Trew of The Times interviewing migrants detained at the centre
Bel Trew of The Times interviewing migrants detained at the centreTAHA JAWASHI FOR THE TIMES

“It’s extremely hard, there are not enough toilets, there are many fights for water and food,” said Shahadat, 38, from Bangladesh, weak in the heat.

He was arrested in May and is waiting to be repatriated, after losing $7,000 to smugglers and kidnappers. “The authorities are trying their best but you can barely sleep. It’s a nightmare,” he said. Inmates have set up an impromptu barber and washing station close by but disease spreads fast.

Behind Shahadat, dozens of Bangladeshi migrants were lined up cross-legged on the dirt floor, awaiting their turn to eat. Fights broke out when a different group from Mali claimed that they had jumped the queue. Supplies for lunch — a stale sandwich, juice carton and glass of water — were running out.

Anes al-Azabi, one of the centre’s heads, said that there were only four days of food left. After that, if the centre could not secure government funding or a new deal with a charity, the guards would have to bring in their own supplies.

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They were hauled up screaming as the boat fuel burnt their flesh

The TimesBel Trew, aboard Dignity 1
The eight-year-old boy screamed as the skin on his back peeled off with the fuel-sodden shirt he had been wearing on board the flimsy dinghy.

The petrol, mixed with seawater, had burnt his flesh and he was now shaking uncontrollably.

A Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) team rushed to get him and his mother, Blessed, into the hospital on board the rescue ship. Several pregnant women, dragged off the same inflatable and covered in similar chemical burns, collapsed on deck.

The stench of cheap boat fuel covered the stern of MSF’s Dignity 1. All 94 men, women and children on board the dinghy that had left Libya that morning were saturated in it. Their burnt skin, fallen from their limbs, lay in jagged patches on the deck, like patches of dried glue.

Dignity’s medics picked their way through dozens of people, working on the most critical cases. Those who still had strength were screaming.

This was just one of four boats trying to make it to Italy that were found by this MSF patrol in 24 hours, making Monday one of the busiest days experienced by teams patrolling the Mediterranean for migrants. In total 6,055 people were rescued across Libya’s western shoreline by the Italian coastguard, international warships, and aid boats like Dignity 1. Twenty-two corpses were recovered too, but many more bodies will never be found.

Of those rescued 417, including 92 children and 70 women fleeing violence, were hauled on to Dignity 1.

“Please, please I’m burning. The fuel, I’m on fire,” moaned Irene, 22 and pregnant, as she pointed at her inner thighs, where the petrol had burnt holes into her flesh.

“My babies, have you seen my babies?” another woman called Patience cried, as she scrambled through the mêlée of people trying to peel off their fuel-soaked clothes in agony.

The survivors, mostly Nigerians, described how three hours into the perilous journey to Italy and about 20 nautical miles from the coast of western Libya, they had heard a crack as one side of the dinghy snapped, plunging 35 people into the water.

They said two little brothers, aged just four and five, had tumbled off the back of the boat and had been lost in the confusion. In the panic some people had grabbed jerry cans of spare fuel to help them stay afloat. Some emptied them to make them more buoyant, but that had made the water in and around the boat corrosive.

On Dignity 1’s lower deck the men and women who could stand stripped naked and were hosed down. Others were carried semi-conscious into showers, or bathed in buckets to wash the fuel from their skin.

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