With the battle for Al Qusayr in Syria now into its third week, UNHCR has been seeing small numbers of Qusayri refugees arriving in eastern Lebanon.
From the handful of interviews we have done so far, it appears that a new route for displaced people has opened up from the Qusayr area towards Arsal in Lebanon, about 100 kilometres away. Some of those forced out of Qusayr by the fighting are fleeing into Lebanon as refugees, while others are being displaced internally to towns including Qara, Nabek, and Hasyah.
Refugees in Lebanon tell UNHCR of an extremely difficult journey, made on foot. Fighters are said to be targeting people as they try to flee. No route out of Qusayr is considered safe, and there are continued reports of between 700 and 1500 injured civilians being trapped in Qusayr. UNHCR is not in a position to verify these details, or to establish who is targeting whom.
Most of those who have fled so far are women and children. Those UNHCR has spoken to say it is unsafe to flee with men, who are at heightened risk of being arrested or killed at checkpoints along the way. None of the refugees was able or willing to identify those who are manning the checkpoints. From one woman, UNHCR heard that people in Qusayr are faced with a terrible choice: "you leave and risk being killed by a bomb, or you stay and face a certainty of being killed."
Qusayr itself is described as a ghost town, heavily damaged, and filled with the sound of bombs. People are said to be hiding in bunkers or holes. One lady told UNHCR, “'we couldn't leave the hole for a week. We ate the little food we had brought down with us. My children were crying constantly.” One of the few men to have arrived in Lebanon said he had fled after his home was bombed and his 20-year-old son had been killed. He had no belongings with him. All those UNHCR spoke to reported great fear of approaching any checkpoint.
UNHCR does not have access to Qusayr and the accounts we have are limited and hard to verify. However, UNHCR is concerned over the serious humanitarian situation and the risks for the civilian population. It is imperative that people seeking a route out of Qusayr, and other unsafe locations, are allowed access to safe areas.
Meanwhile, UNHCR continues to be concerned about impediments in the way of people seeking safety in other parts of the region. In Jordan, 4,323 individuals managed to the cross from Syria between Monday 27 May and Sunday 2nd June. However, the numbers have sharply decreased compared to earlier in May, when 26,600 people crossed the border in the first 18 days of the month. Refugees continue to report difficulties in accessing the border. Access to safety and protection in neighbouring states is of life-saving importance given the reports of insecurity in some areas.
Crossing into Iraq is also difficult. Since May 19th, the Peshkapor border crossing in the Kurdistan region, where most Syrians have been entering Iraq, has been closed for refugees. Consequently, people trying to escape violence and conflict in Syria by seeking refuge in the Kurdistan Region are no longer able to do so. Nearly 150,000 refugees have been offered asylum in the Kurdistan Region. Given the level of insecurity, many more are expected to come. In addition, the closure of the border at Al Qa'im, since October 2012, is impeding those Syrians seeking refuge in Anbar Governorate. This has, in part, led to the return of many registered refugees to Syria as they can no longer bring family members into Iraq, in addition to not being able to access the labour market in Al Qa'im town.
UNHCR is also hearing reports from refugees of increasing difficulties at many crossing points on the Turkey border. People seeking to approach the border from Syria report harsh border controls, resulting in fewer people getting across. UNHCR has not been able to verify this information directly. All Syrians forced to flee should be allowed to do so, and be given safe passage.Photo: This family recently fled from the Syrian town of Al Qusayr.
FN:s flyktingorgan UNHCR verkar för skydd och bistånd till miljoner flyktingar världen över, på ett opartiskt sätt och oberoende av etnisk bakgrund, religion, politisk åskådning och kön.