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August 31, 2012

Aid Agencies Scrambling to Relocate Refugees from Syrian Schools

by Lisa Schlein

Aid agencies in Syria and neighboring countries are scrambling to relocate refugees sheltered in education facilities before school resumes in mid-September.  The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says many children will not be able to return to schools occupied by people made homeless by the Syrian conflict.  Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

The UNHCR reports the outflow of refugees from Syria continues unabated.  It says the total number of Syrian refugees registered or awaiting registration is now approaching 230,000.

The agency says Syria's neighbors - Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq - report no letdown in the number of people fleeing into their countries.

For example, the UNHCR reports about 2,200 people arrived in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley over the past week.  This is almost double the recent weekly average.

UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards says this is causing a huge housing shortage as aid workers scramble to find accommodations for the refugees.

"Across Lebanon, the squeeze on shelter remains one of our biggest concerns with many refugees still staying in schools that are supposed to open in a week or two for the new school terms," said Edwards.  

Edwards says the UNHCR is continuing to search for alternative shelter for refugees staying in schools.  It also is operating a hotline for refugees who are coming under pressure to vacate.  

He says the agency last week submitted to the local authorities a list of 11 abandoned buildings it proposes to refurbish to house refugees.  

In Turkey, which now hosts more than 80,000 people, he says two more refugee camps have been opened.  He says a number of refugees currently staying in schools, dormitories, and gyms in seven cities in the south of Turkey will be transferred to the new camps.

Edwards added that many Syrians who have fled to Kurdistan are sheltering in schools and mosques.  And, inside Syria, he said work is going on to find alternative housing for people who are living in schools.

"We received a list from authorities specifying which of the schools accommodating people displaced by the conflict will continue to be able to shelter people once the academic year begins in a couple of weeks' time," said Edwards.  "Our office in Syria plans to undertake urgent work on refurbishing buildings that can be used as communal shelters to allow more displaced to move in."  

The U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) says it is doubtful that many children will be able to fully resume their education. It says many schools have been destroyed or damaged during the fighting and are unfit for occupancy.  

It says alternative forms of schooling will have to be devised.  UNICEF has a program called "school-in-a-box" that is widely used in conflict zones and contains teaching materials and is easy to set up in remote locations.