• People in northwest Syria are living through some of the worst crisis since the war in Syria began.
More than 800,000 people have been displaced since 1 December, due to intense conflict in freezing weather. The humanitarian community is doing everything it can but is overwhelmed by the scale of needs. An immediate cessation of the violence is critical. More resources, including funding, is immediately needed to save people’s lives and alleviate their suffering.
• Of the more than 800,000 people who have been displaced in northwest Syria from 1 December 2019 to 12 February 2020, some 60 percent are estimated to be children. Women and children – who are 81 percent of the newly displaced people– are again among those who suffer most.
Several children are reported to have died due to the freezing temperatures.
• While the humanitarian community continues to scale up the response to support all people in need, this latest emergency compounds an already dire humanitarian situation for people in northwest Syria who have been made vulnerable by years of crisis, violence, economic downturn and multiple displacements. Shelter is the most urgent need, as millions of people have been pushed into small areas not equipped to support that many people, especially during the cold winter.
The humanitarian situation for people in northwest Syria is at the most critical points due to ongoing hostilities, harsh winter conditions, and existing needs that were already severe. From 9 to 12 February, some 142,000 more people were displaced, bringing the total number of displaced individuals to more than 800,000 people since 1 December. The massive scale and rapidity of this displacement compounds the previously existing needs in northwest Syria. Since late January, intensive airstrikes and shelling continued to affect communities in the Idleb area, including western Aleppo governorate. Ground fighting between non-state armed groups (NSAGs) and Government of Syria (GoS) forces and its allies rapidly extended to include a larger geographic area, affecting many population centres, such as Saraqab and its vicinity. As of 13 February, ground fighting in western Aleppo countryside reportedly continues resulting in rapidly shifting frontlines. Since late January, some 100 communities1 in southeastern Idleb and western Aleppo countryside have reportedly come under the control of GoS forces, in addition to several western neighbourhoods of Aleppo city. While communities in proximity of the frontlines are almost deserted as people flee to safer areas, those who are left behind generally have existing vulnerabilities and face greater risks due to their inability to evacuate.
As a result of this rapid escalation, civilians from towns and villages, which until this point had received displaced people such as Sarmin, Atareb, Teftnaz, Bennsh, Kelly, Ariha and Idleb city, began to flee further north, to areas close to the Turkish-Syrian border in northwest Idleb and to northern Aleppo governorate. As of 11 February, local sources reported that civilians continue to flee in anticipation of fighting directly affecting their communities, including from areas that are in proximity to large IDP camps, such as Dana and Sarmada in northwest Idleb. On February 10, Kafr Aruq site located in Harim community, was reportedly hit by an airstrike, resulting in the death of one person and injuring seven others. Four shelters used to accommodate four families were completely damaged.
Of the more than 800,000 individuals who have been displaced since 1 December, more than 550,000 moved within the Idleb area, mostly to Dana, Maaret Tamsrin and Idleb sub-districts, which are densely populated with displaced people who had been displaced previously. More than 250,000 have moved to areas in northern Aleppo governorate including Afrin, A’zaz, Jandairis and Al Bab. Since last week, movement to northern Aleppo governorate reportedly increased, indicating that more people are seeking to reach safety and services in these areas.
Given the high number of people who fled their homes in the past two months and the rapidity of the population movement, humanitarian needs in northwest Syria are increasing exponentially. Shelter, non-food items, food and protection assistance continue to be the most pressing needs, with 93 percent of the newly displaced individuals identifying shelter as a main need. As of 13 February, the CCCM Cluster reported that 36 percent of the newly displaced people are staying in rented houses or with host families, while 17 percent of people moved to camps. Another 12 percent of the newly displaced people are reported to seek shelter in individual tents, while 15 percent of them are in unfinished buildings. Some 82,000 people are reportedly in open areas, including under trees.
These dire conditions are further exacerbated by harsh winter weather across northwest Syria where the coldest days and nights of the current winter season have been observed since last week. On the night of 10 February, the temperatures dropped to minus 7 degrees Celsius, and a wind chill factor that dropped ambient temperatures lower. This happened on a night when thousands of families fled from their homes in the Atareb area in the western Aleppo countryside. Those families who could take some of their belongings as they fled from their homes are reportedly burning whatever they could find, including pieces of furniture and whatever can be spared to stay warm for a short while. Others are reportedly pooling money to buy unfinished shacks with no roof, windows or doors to protect themselves from the cold as much as possible.
On 11 February, five people reportedly died due to suffocation at an IDP site in Kelly, as they reportedly burned materials that let out toxic fumes for heating. The SNFI Cluster estimates that 488,000 of the people displaced since 1 December need additional winter assistance.
Women and children – who represent 81 percent of the newly displaced people – are again among those who suffer the most. Of more than 800,000 people who have been displaced in northwest Syria from 1 December 2019 to 12 February 2020, more than 60 percent are children. As families and communities continue to be displaced, many of them for multiple times within the space of two months, their resilience has rapidly eroded, which aggravates existing vulnerabilities. Local sources and NGO partners alerted that several young children who are extremely vulnerable to the cold reportedly passed away due to the harsh conditions. The Nutrition cluster highlighted that malnutrition among pregnant and lactating mothers as well as displaced children are is on the rise. Several local sources reported that women and children are being exposed to serious protection risks such as gender-based violence, particularly in informal settlements where makeshift WASH facilities do not provide for privacy.
As a result of hostilities and displacement, the provision of humanitarian assistance is severely hampered. Many humanitarian workers are themselves displaced with their communities, undermining the human capacity to provide humanitarian assistance. As of 11 February, at least 72 health facilities have suspended services due to insecurity or mass displacement in northwest Syria. As the security situation continued to deteriorate in February, many other facilities reported that they have suspended their work. On 10 and 11 February several hospitals and healthcare centres in Idleb and Aleppo governorates shut, suspended or reduced operations as a result of the ongoing hostilities. Reportedly, those that have suspended operations include maternity and childcare hospitals in Atareb and Idleb city, and primary healthcare centres in Abzemo and Sahara. Three other primary healthcare centres – in Iss, Zarbah and Sarmin – have reportedly closed, and a hospital in Maaret Tamsrin reportedly suspended all operations except for emergency services.
Reported restrictions on civilian movements through crossings and the unpredictable closure of crossings are further threatening the ability of people to escape hostilities as they are forced to seek new routes. On 6 February, local sources reported that GoS forces prevented civilians from the Idleb area from entering GoS-controlled areas in Aleppo through the Al-Tahya crossing point. On the same day, the Isse/Hader commercial crossing point, in southern Aleppo linking NSAG and GoS areas, was reportedly closed due to ongoing clashes.
Moreover, the Bab al Hawa crossing, which is the primary lifeline for providing humanitarian assistance to the Idleb area, was reportedly closed to civilian traffic, including for humanitarian transshipments, on 10 February as a result of increased hostilities. On the following day, UN transshipments at Bab al Hawa were delayed or postponed altogether, as drivers inside Syria did not wish to be separate from their families in the volatile context. Later on 11 February, UN transshipments reportedly resumed and proceeded as scheduled.
The hostilities in northwest Syria have a devastating human cost. From 29 April 2019 to 10 February 2020, OHCHR recorded incidents in which at least 1,710 civilians were killed, including 337 women and 503 children in northwest Syria including Idleb, Hama and Aleppo governorates. Of these, 93 civilians including 23 women and 28 children were killed in areas under the control of the Government of Syria.