Humanitarian assistance needs to be scaled up significantly to more than a million people displaced by fighting in northwest Syria, a senior UN aid official said on Monday, amid reports that children are freezing to death on the Turkish border.
“People are traumatized and frightened and urgently need better access to shelter, food, sanitation, basic health services and protection”, said Kevin Kennedy, Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis.
According to UN agencies, half a million children are believed to be at risk among those forced to flee fighting in Idlib, according to UN aid agencies.
In comments issued after visiting the Kafr Lousin camp for internally displaced people and Bab al-Hawa hospital in Idlib, Mr. Kennedy highlighted how the massive cross-border aid operation already underway provided an essential lifeline for desperate Syrians.
“More than 2,150 trucks carrying aid crossed from Turkey into northwest Syria in January and February,” he said. “This is more than double the number of trucks crossing during the same period in 2019. But we need to do even more and scale up our presence on the ground.”
Local aid workers were doing a “heroic job”, he added, “but they are exhausted and are themselves being displaced and killed”.
War crimes likely, say investigators
In a related development, UN-appointed investigators on Monday warned that civilians fleeing Syria’s long-term war continue to face terrifying violence that likely amounts to war crimes.
At the launch of their latest report into the conflict – the Independent International Commission of Inquiry described “unprecedented levels of suffering and pain” inside the war-torn country.
Those arriving in displacement camps have struggled to find shelter amid freezing winter temperatures that have claimed around 10 children’s lives, Commissioner Hanny Megally said.
“The people that are stuck at the border are suffering because of a lack of humanitarian assistance and children have been dying in the cold”, he insisted. “And it’s not clear to me why the international community has not acted urgently to make sure that they are getting the humanitarian assistance they need.”
After nearly nine years of war, human rights violations inside Syria have continued to “multiply”, according to the Commission of Inquiry, whose findings principally concern the period between 11 July 2019 and 10 January 2020.
“There is a war crime of intentionally terrorising a population to force it to move and I think we’re seeing that picture emerging very clearly for example in Idlib,” Mr Megally said, amid repeated aerial and ground attacks on built-up areas that are protected in times of war.
Deliberate attacks on hospitals
“The bigger pattern that we’ve been seeing is deliberate attacks on hospitals to put them out of commission and essentially in such a way as to force the population to move”, he added.
Appointed by the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Commission of Inquiry report includes detailed information surrounding aerial bombardments on built-up areas including a crowded marketplace on 22 July in Maarat al Numan, and a displacement camp close to Haas on 16 August.
“In the marketplace, it was attacked actually twice with what we call a double-tap,” Mr Megally said, adding that 43 people were killed and 109 injured.
“Russian planes were sighted above that area. In Haas, in south Idlib, a compound for the displaced, about 20 people were killed, eight women I think, six children.”
Citing information that will be presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 10 March, he added that there were “reasonable grounds to believe that these were … Russian planes with Russian pilots”.
Operation Peace Spring ‘displaced 100,000 people’
In early October, hostilities linked to the advance of Turkish forces in support of the opposition Syrian National Army (SNA) led to the displacement of more than 100,000 people, the Commission of Inquiry report stated.
“Normally, you would want to be saying there’s command and control – you know – evidence that they are either doing it under instructions or under orders from the power that’s supporting them”, Mr. Megally said. “That’s been something we couldn’t find. But we felt that still Turkey should be feeling responsible” for their actions, and, “should at least be trying to prevent them from continuing to violate rights.”
‘Appalling’ conditions in ISIL family camps
Turning to north-east Syria, and the detention camps where many alleged ISIL extremists and their families are still being held after the so-called Caliphate was overthrown, the Commissioners reported that some 11,000 males – some as young as nine – are being held “in squalid conditions”, overseen by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
“People have been taken there without enough mobilisation of international assistance, so they were being held in appalling conditions,” Mr Megally said, amid evidence that detainees lacked adequate access to food or water, were visibly ill and had untreated conflict-related injuries.
Women and children continue to be held there, Mr Megally warned.
Repatriation call for foreign fighters
“The women and children come from various nationalities…I think it’s up to 50 countries. Most have not stepped forward and taken back their nationals. And that’s been problematic.”
It was of the utmost importance that Member States repatriated vulnerable and impressionable youngsters, Mr Pinheiro said.
They “should regard children first and foremost as victims and not as future terrorists”, he insisted.