Humanitarian Catastrophe in Syria’s Northwest
The ongoing conflict in Syria
It remains difficult to believe that on March 18th, the Syrian war will enter into its ninth year. This will happen at a time when the humanitarian crisis Syria remains extremely dire as the conflict is currently escalating in the northwest, causing new and massive waves of internal displacement. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), between December 1st, 2019 and February 19th, 2020 more than 900,000 people, more than half of whom children, have been displaced in northwest Syria, becoming the largest displacementsince the beginning of the conflict. 100,000 Syrians have been displaced within the past two weeks alone, indicating a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in front of our eyes.
The recent waves of displacement in the northwestern region of Syria are a result of an intensifying offensive by the Syrian government and its allies, Russia and Iran, which began in December intending to claim back territorial ground, especially in and around Idlib governorate. Since December, government forces have recaptured territory and taken control of dozens of towns in what is known as the last rebel stronghold in Idlib province and parts of Aleppo. As airstrikes and shelling intensify in these regions, the number of displaced Syrians is rising as people flee their homes, informal settlements or camps in search of safety and protection. The International Rescue Committee fears that if violence continues to escalate at the current scale, an additional 500,000 civilians could be displaced.
The biggest challenge at the moment is finding shelter, as there is a dramatic rise in the need for shelter, while the housing situation remains severe. Any camps holding displaced persons are either at capacity or abandoned by people fleeing, also because such camps have recently been targeted by attacks. According to the New York Times, “a United Nations camp of 10,000 displaced people emptied almost overnight as government troops neared.”
The shortage of shelter and other safe spaces leaves those displaced at risk in overcrowded makeshift camps and substandard living conditions, leaving them vulnerable to severe weather conditions including flooding, sub-zero temperatures and other protection risks. While many communities impacted by the ongoing conflict have departed their homes in search of safer areas, it is those who have existing vulnerabilities who face more significant risks. This includes populations such as those who are unable to relocate from their homes because of disabilities and therefore are unable to access potentially life-saving protection. Women also remain vulnerable in areas of displacement, accounting for the lack of protection issues that come with inadequate access to shelter, placing women at risk of sexual and gender-based violence. In addition, children remain a particularly vulnerable population as well, with the UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, stating that “the crisis in northwest Syria is turning into a child protection crisis of unprecedented scale.”
The UN’s failure to act and the International Community’s call to uphold Humanitarian Law
The United Nations estimates that eleven million people in Syria currently require humanitarian assistance. Given the enormous waves of current internal displacement which have been occurring over the last months, the need for humanitarian assistance is ever-growing. However, the global commitment to this assistance is dwindling. The UN Security Council (UNSC) in late-2019 postponed its decision to extend the UN Resolution that ensures another year of immediate cross-border humanitarian aid delivery for Syria, on which millions of Syrians depend. This is because Russia, backed by China, cast a veto to block the resolution that safeguards cross-border humanitarian aid deliveries from Turkey and Iraq. This veto put the cross-border humanitarian effort, and the lives of the millions who depend on it, in jeopardy. The UNSC deliberated the resolution further and on January 10th, decided to renew a severely “limited version” of the resolution allowing the cross-border delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria. However, “some of the body’s members expressed disappointment that the ‘watered down’ measure cut in half the number of crossing points and the duration of the authorization.” While this is a concerning development, the importance of this resolution and the continuance of cross-border aid delivery to Syria is immense, as “without the cross-border operation, we would see an immediate end of aid supporting millions of civilians” stated by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator.
When the UNSC met on February 19th, UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen appealed to ambassadors of the Council once again for “full respect for international humanitarian law and for an immediate ceasefire in Idlib, ultimately towards a nationwide ceasefire,” warning of a “devastating scale of human suffering.” However, the meeting concluded without a solution to the overwhelming rise in essential needs for Syrians in the northwest region of the country. The UN is working with the Government of Turkey to increase the cross-border aid flow at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which would increase the number of aid trucks to reach Syria. This endeavour, however, has so far been unsuccessful.
Cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria is essential, as Syrians are in urgent need of a wide range of services, including shelter, protection assistance, WASH programs, health and psychosocial support, as well as food non-food items, and other services. With such a high level of aid in demand, eight aid agencies joined together to make an urgent call for an immediate ceasefire in northeastern Syria, to ensure that civilians can be properly reached, cared for, and given access to life-saving services. In addition, the International Rescue Committee has called for “all parties to the conflict to commit to the United Nations peace process in Geneva to bring an end to the Syrian conflict.” Humanitarian organizations must be empowered to continue to uphold humanitarian law and secure access to services to the hundreds of thousands of people displaced due to this most recent escalation of violence.
Limited Resettlement Options: The need for Complementary Pathways
In Syria, a tremendous gap exists between resettlement needs and the places made available. There are far too few traditional resettlement pathways to accommodate all displaced Syrians in need of urgent resettlement. With the humanitarian situation in Syria becoming exceedingly dire, Refugee Pathways calls for countries to increase traditional resettlement admissions, as well as access to other complementary resettlement pathways, such as humanitarian visas, family reunification, private sponsorship, and educational programs. It is staggeringly crucial that the international community retains its commitment to the Global Compact on Refugees as a means of responsibility-sharing. The current humanitarian catastrophe in Syria affects hundreds of thousands of people fleeing violence and persecution; we must offer them the protection they deserve.
By Emily Ervin for Refugee Pathways