GENEVA — The UNHCR says many people who had been trapped by fighting in the besieged city of al-Qusair are now taking to the road and are fleeing to Lebanon.
Agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming says the battle in and around Qusair has displaced a lot of people, and many of those arriving in Lebanon are traumatized.
"Families we spoke to describe a city reduced to rubble, devoid of any civilians and also any combatants. One man who spoke to us told us there was absolutely no food in the town and no water. He said people were resorting to squeezing water from the leaves of trees for nourishment. So, no wonder people are also trying to escape. During the fighting they were fleeing to fields, and the route into Lebanon has been described as also very dangerous," said Fleming.
The UNHCR reports hundreds of wounded people have arrived in Lebanon, including 60 children. Lebanon does not have refugee camps. So, many refugees are living with friends and relatives. Those who have no place to stay are living wherever they can find a place.
Fleming says Syrian refugees are living in makeshift accommodations in 1,400 towns across Lebanon. She says people there are poor and the influx of refugees is straining the resources of these communities. She says the UNHCR is assisting them, but it is difficult.
"Our strategy in Lebanon, particularly in the area of shelter, is to continue to work with the communities to allow for this kind of refugee settlement. We believe that particularly in Lebanon that this is the best option -- to have refugees living in the communities. We have a program whereby people living in other peoples homes - and most of them do get their homes refurbished. So, not only do the refugees benefit, but also the people who are hosting them," she said.
Fleming says Arsal, a town in the Beka'a Valley, is the first destination for refugees fleeing from Qusair. She says it is difficult to get an exact number of new arrivals because most of the families immediately depart with relatives to other areas in Lebanon.
Fleming says the UNHCR will begin registering new arrivals on Monday. This, in turn, should provide a clearer picture of the exact number of refugees in need of assistance.
The refugee agency also said that it has managed to get nine trucks of humanitarian assistance into the northern city of al-Raqqa, which has been cut off from humanitarian assistance for three months and reportedly is in a dire situation.
The UNHCR says it also has been successful in beginning a cash distribution program in Tartous, a city on the coast, to hundreds of displaced families that have fled from Aleppo. It says it has dispensed cash vouchers of $150 to more than 3,200 displaced people and hopes to assist several thousands more vulnerable people in the near future.