More than 64,000 displaced people have lost their tents to flooding. Why is the aid distribution still unable to prevent the cycle of disasters in northern Syria almost ten years into the fighting?
In a camp in Salqin, Idlib, in Syria’s northwest, five displaced families squeeze into one tent. Barefoot children with trousers rolled up to their knees, play in flood water. This area has been hit by heavy rains. At the sides, parents try to shovel the mud and water that has entered their temporary homes where they have been forced to take refuge while waiting for the conflict to end. Some camps had to dig trenches to avoid the excessive flood water, but in many cases, the damage is already done. Mattresses and bedding on the sandy ground inside the tents are soaked. More than 65,000 people have lost their tents in around 200 internally displaced camps in Northwestern Syria after the flooding began last week, according to CARE International.
“When the camp was flooded, I didn’t know if I had to help my neighbour to remove mud and water or to clean my own tent,” Khaled Othhman, a resident of the Jamiya camp, tells TRT World.
“I’m 52 years old. At this age, I don’t know what to do, where to go,” he says.
Almost ten years into the Syrian war, Idlib remains the last remaining bastion that the country’s regime leader, Bashar al Assad, has not managed to re-capture from opposition groups. With occasional bombing on the towns in the region by regime forces, as well as Russian airplanes backing them, the safe zone for more than 3 million Syrians is shrinking in the opposition-controlled region.
Even though most camps in the area are “located in flat orchards, suitable for agriculture, rather than construction,” a lack of other options is forcing people to settle in temporary, makeshift tents, CARE’s Senior Communications Manager for the Syria Crisis, Fatimah Azzeh, tells TRT World.
Othman, who was displaced from Hama countryside, said others in the camps wouldn’t be able to go anywhere else, even if they wanted to. The majority of people in the camps are from villages and towns susceptible to artillery shells or harsh crackdowns from the regime forces. For them, returning to the regime-controlled areas is out of the question as they don't want to risk their lives given the Assad regime can arrest any civilian from the opposition areas.
Camp residents who come from the regime-controlled cities like Damascus and Latakia, also have no option but to stay in camps in Western Aleppo and northern Idlib. The rent is too expensive to afford. The country’s deepening economic crisis amid an endless war is making livelihood extremely hard not only for the displaced, but also for the residents in the regime controlled areas.
What happened to the people who lost their tents?
“With nowhere to shelter, thousands have had to temporarily stay with family members, in public buildings, such as schools and mosques, or worse yet, sleep out in the open, as temperatures dip below zero,” Azzeh, CARE’s Syria Crisis Communications Manager says.
“The ability to repair affected tents is limited during the wet winter months and, unfortunately, floods are likely to reoccur with renewed rainfall,” she says.
In some camps, aid organisations have moved tents to higher areas where water cannot be a danger, Idlib’s Health Directorate tells TRT World.
It’s a temporary solution, however, and in many camps where aid workers have not yet been able to travel, this will be a good enough remedy.
Aboud al Omar, Jamiya camp’s manager, who’s also living in the camp with his family, tells TRT World almost no aid support has come to his camp in the last eight months. At least 50 tents in the camp can no longer be used and the rest shared by multiple families are leaking and need urgent replacements.
“Some other camps, for example the one in Atmeh are receiving more aid,” Omar says.
“I don’t know why the aid is not arriving. I guess we’re forgotten.”
The United Nations said in a statement that reaching those in need has been compounded by the flooding of access roads, making access harder than ever, and reaching every camp in need will take time.
“There is an urgent need to provide additional funding that allows for infrastructure rehabilitation, as well as for more sustainable shelter solutions in locations that are safe,” the statement said. “The situation might contribute to the rise in COVID infections and other diseases.”
Funding is not the only problem
It is up to the United Nations, international donors and the local NGOs to look after the displaced. The aid is however often erratic and its unstable distribution doesn't help prevent recurring disasters like flooding.
For Charles Lister, director of the Syria Program of the Middle East Institute, a bigger crisis is looming over the distribution of the humanitarian aid in the region - it’s related to weaponised cross-border aid access rather than raising aid levels.
“This is not an issue of how much aid is being provided to Syria, but to whom it is being delivered,” Lister said in a report by MEI.
The UN has been negotiating with the Syrian regime to extend the cross-border access to the region, which is only limited to the Bab al-Hawa border gate in the northwest. However, the talks failed after Russia’s ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, said he was intending to veto such an offer. Amid an increasing need for wider aid distribution, this move could potentially leave over millions of people without assistance in a premeditated catastrophe.
“While Syria’s regime has consistently weaponized aid to its advantage over the past decade of conflict, Russia’s UN veto has taken that to the highest and most potent diplomatic level,” Lister wrote.
“UN aid channels coordinated in Damascus have been deeply corrupted and tied intrinsically to networks of regime-linked distributors, security companies, and associated “charities.’”
The concerns regarding the Assad regime’s control over UN aid has been long being discussed over the years. Roughly 90%, is provided by European countries and the US. The body’s relationship with the regime came under the spotlight again recently when the UN’s public health agency, the World Health Organisation (WHO), used a sanctioned Syrian airline, Cham Wings, to transport aid to Libya. The airline was accused of ferrying mercenaries and aiding Iran's Revolutionary Guard.