An estimated 167,000 people have been displaced by recent hostilities in the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday, as it called for urgent aid to be dispensed.
Most of the people fled about 30 km southeast to Tall Refaat, while others travelled further south toward Allepo to the towns of Nubul, Zahra, and surrounding villages.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the massive influx of IDPs is putting a strain on host communities, which are already overwhelmed. All 16 schools in Tall Refaat are being used as IDP shelters.
On 18 March, Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) and allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions exerted control over Afrin city, following the withdrawal of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from the city. Hostilities in the district began on 20 January when Turkish officials announced the beginning of Operation Olive Branch. Throughout the past 59 days, TAF and FSA factions established control over approximately 90% of the areas that were previously under the control of SDF in Afrin district, with few communities to the south of Afrin town remaining under the control of SDF.
The initial stages of the military operations in Afrin district caused tens of thousands of people to to be displaced from Afrin city and surrounding communities. The then local authorities in the district imposed restrictions on the movement of civilians out of Afrin district, forcing some civilians to use unofficial means to flee the violence in their communities. With hostilities moving closer to the central part of the district around the middle of March, these restrictions relaxed and thousands of civilians fled. It is currently estimated that 98,000 people were displaced from the district: 75,000 people displaced to Tall Refaat sub-district, 15,500 to Nabul town and 8,500 to Zahraa town. Additionally, a few thousand people reportedly reached SDF-held areas in Menbij district, and 150 families reportedly reached Al- Hasakeh governorate, where they are being hosted at Norwoz camp in Al-Malikeyyeh sub-district. Based on these estimates, it is possible there are some 50,000 to 70,000 people who remained in Afrin city.
The massive influx of IDPs out of Afrin is putting a strain on the nearby host communities, which are already overwhelmed. All 16 schools in Tall Refaat sub-district are being used as IDP shelters resulting in no education taking place. Based on a field visit to Tall Refaat sub-district on 17 March, UN teams observed that the majority of IDPs are women, children, and elderly people. Some IDPs said that it took them 36 hours to reach the sub-district. Serious gaps in the WASH sector have been reported, putting the displaced population at risk of contracting different diseases. Provision of health services in Tall Refaat sub-district is very limited with only one health point providing services. Referrals could only take place to a private hospital in Zahraa town, which does not offer free services. In Nabul town, IDPs are mostly staying with the host community but the recent wave is being accommodated in warehouses and mosques. In Zahraa town, most IDPs are being accommodated in mosques or renting houses. Should more IDPs arrive, there is a high likelihood that schools in both towns will be turned into shelters.
With hostilities in Afrin district reducing, the fuel supply routes to north-western Syria are expected to be reopened soon. Local sources in north-western Syria already reported that commercial trucks passing through Afrin district reached north-western Syria for the first time since 20 January. The disruption of the fuel supply routes has had a significant impact on the operations of humanitarian organizations in Idleb governorate and adjacent NSAG held areas, with few organizations reportedly suspending some activities.
Following the change in control that took place on 18 March, there have been worrying reports of threats of violence and arbitrary arrest being carried out against civilians by FSA members, as well as looting of civilian property, emerged from Afrin city. The UN views these reports with utmost concern and demands the parties to the conflict to respect their obligation under International Humanitarian Law and human rights law. On 19 March, some FSA factions issued orders preventing their fighters from entering Afrin city without an official permission, to curb such misconduct.
According to the WHO, the influx of displaced people has put additional strains on hosting communities with already-overwhelmed health facilities.
“Children, women, and men have undertaken harrowing journeys to flee Afrin and need urgent health assistance. Our staff has met civilians who reported walking for 36 hours to reach safer areas,” said WHO Representative in Syria Elizabeth Hoff. “WHO calls on all parties to ensure that critically sick and injured civilians are referred to facilities that can provide proper treatment.”
On Jan. 20, Turkish forces and allied Syrian rebels, known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), launched a joint military operation to capture the Kurdish enclave of Afrin located in northwestern Syria.
The WHO has deployed four mobile health teams to Tal Rifaat, Nubul, and Zahra as well as delivering 10 tons of medical supplies sufficient for 55,700 treatment courses. The organization stated that the second shipment of medicines and medical supplies sufficient for more than 64,000 treatments is ready to be dispatched from Aleppo to Tal Rifaat, once the access is guaranteed.
“For tens of thousands of civilians who remain in the city of Afrin and surrounding areas, WHO’s cross-border hub in Gaziantep, Turkey is helping health partners to scale-up health services, amid concerning shortages of medical supplies and staff,” a WHO statement added.
Turkish and FSA forces now control Afrin city, which, combined with their previous heavy bombardment and reported chemical weapons attacks, have resulted in tens of thousands being displaced from the area.