The Current

'An absolutely desperate situation': Syria facing one of the biggest waves of displacement since war started

Fighting over the past two months in northwestern Syria is causing one of the biggest waves of internal displacement since the war began nine years ago, according to the UN.

The UN says more than 700,000 people have been displaced in past two months due to fighting in Idlib

Displaced Syrian women and children, who fled from southern Idlib, gather around a fire in Afrin, Syria, on Thursday. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)
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Air and ground strikes in the Idlib region of northwestern Syria have led to one of the biggest waves of displaced people since the war began nine years ago, according to a United Nations official in the region.

"It's an absolutely desperate situation on the ground at the moment, and no one there feels safe," Mark Cutts, deputy regional humanitarian co-ordinator for the Syria crisis, told The Current's guest host Rosemary Barton.

"We really want the whole world to understand that this is now a crisis on a huge scale."

On Thursday, the UN reported that more than 586,000 people had been displaced in Idlib in the last two months alone. Four days later that number has increased to nearly 700,000, according to Cutts.

"It's so difficult because the place is already so overcrowded with displaced people," he said.

Half the population of Syria, or around 12 million people, have been forced from their homes since the conflict began, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. 

Idlib province, Syria's last rebel-held region, was once considered a safe haven for people fleeing the conflict in other parts of the country.

Turkish soldiers stand in a house in the countryside in the Syrian province of Idlib on Monday. Turkey said it hit back at Syrian government forces on Monday, after Syrian shelling killed five of its soldiers and wounded five others. (Ghaith Alsayed/The Associated Press)

Now, a Russia-backed military offensive by the Syrian government, coupled with clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces, are pushing hundreds of thousands of people in Idlib towards the closed Turkish border. 

"The bombs keep following them wherever they move to," said Cutts.

Dr. Farida Almouslem, an obstetrician-gynecologist and surgeon, is one of the many internally displaced people in the province. She and her daughter fled Aleppo in 2016, hoping to find safety in Idlib.

Now, she said, she worries every moment that an airstrike could hit her daughter while she's at school.

"If anything has happened to her, it will be my mistake, because I didn't escape from the beginning," she said.

Hospitals overwhelmed

Almouslem, who has been treating patients in various parts of Idlib, said that barrel bombing 500 metres from the hospital where she was working on Sunday had forced them to evacuate patients and suspend operations.

"I don't know what will happen [to] my hospital — where we can go. How can we complete our job?" Almouslem said.

As of February 2020, more than 50 medical facilities in the region have closed due to the fighting, according to the UN

Almouslem said that the massive influx of newly displaced people has put an extraordinary strain on the medical facilities that remain open near the Turkish border.

Trucks carry the belongings of displaced Syrians in the town of Sarmada in Idlib province on Jan. 28. (REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi)

She states that — in many cases — two patients are forced to share one bed, or even receive treatment sitting in chairs or lying on the hospital floor. 

"We can't treat them on the chair or on the ground during labour and delivery," she said.

Dangerously cold weather

In addition to the strain on medical resources, temperatures in the region have dropped below zero. That's extremely dangerous for the many new arrivals living in tents, said Cutts.

"We're getting lots of reports of babies dying, people suffering from hypothermia — it's really a horrific situation at the moment," he said.

A displaced Syrian child who fled from southern Idlib looks through a tent in Afrin, Syria, on Friday. (REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi)

Cutts said that due to the lack of fuel, people were burning whatever they could to stay warm, including clothes, shoes, car tires and plastic bottles. These practices have led to some deaths from toxic fume inhalation. 

Almouslem said she had seen a number of newborns die from the freezing conditions over the past month, and that the death of children had become so common that people in the area were growing accustomed to it.

"It's our normal life, just to die," she said.

Calls for resources

The UN is now appealing for $336 million US (approx. $450 million Cdn) in funding for the next six months to help the new wave of displaced people.

"Everything is really stretched to the limit. We are trying desperately to scale up this response," said Cutts. 

That funding is needed to build new camps and stockpile more tents, food, blankets and emergency relief supplies for the new arrivals, he said. 

But, he stressed, those were just short-term fixes — more important was for the bombing to stop and for civilians to be out of harm's way.

"These people need to be protected either inside Syria where they are, or they must be allowed to go to some other place where they can be safe."


Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin, Ines Colabrese, Ben Jamieson and Julie Crysler.

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