Syria: Non-renewal of last aid corridor risks humanitarian catastrophe for millions

The United Nations Security Council members must extend the cross-border resolution that allows the UN to deliver aid to at least 4 million residents and internally displaced people (IDPs) in north-west Syria before it expires on 10 July, Amnesty International said today.

In a new report, ‘Unbearable living conditions’: Inadequate access to economic and social rights in displacement camps in north-west Syria, Amnesty International details how, as a consequence of the Syrian government’s denial or obstruction of displaced people’s access to economic and social rights, IDPs living in dire conditions in camps are extremely vulnerable and entirely dependent on international aid for survival. 

About 1.7 million people are currently living in camps in north-west Syria, 58% of which are children, with no durable solution in sight. The vast majority of people have for years lived in tents with little or no access to water and sanitation, which increases the risk of waterborne diseases. These women, men and children have been living in absolute destitution, and are entirely dependent on humanitarian organizations for survival.

“Many of these displaced women, men and children have spent over six years living in conditions of absolute destitution in north-west Syria. They have little prospect of returning to their homes due to ongoing violations by the Syrian authorities at their place of origin, but staying put means living in unbearably harsh living conditions, and risking disease and gender-based violence,” said Diana Semaan, Amnesty International’s Acting Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“Since losing control of the north-west part of the country, the Syrian government has cut off electricity and water supplies, obstructed aid, and attacked camps, medical facilities, and schools, putting the onus on humanitarian organizations to provide services. There is no effective solution for providing adequate humanitarian aid in north-west Syria except by renewing the existing cross-border mechanism. It is imperative that the UN Security Council renews authorization of that mechanism before it expires on 10 July.”  

Amnesty International conducted research between February and May 2022 for its report, which examines how people living in camps do not have access to their rights to adequate housing, water and sanitation, and health, pre-dominantly in Idlib. The organization interviewed a total of 45 people, including humanitarian and medical workers, in addition to displaced women and men from the area.

According to the UN’s Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, IDPs have the same rights as any other person living in the same country, including the right to an adequate standard of living. These rights must include, at a minimum, access to “essential food and potable water, basic shelter and housing, appropriate clothing, and essential medical services and sanitation.”

Inadequate housing, not enough water

More than half of the internally displaced population in north-west Syria lives in 1,414 camps, usually in one-room tents that do not have solid doors or locks and do not offer insulation from the extreme cold or heat common to the area, in violation of their right to habitable housing under international law. IDPs receive water mostly through communal tanks, but the amount they receive is less than half their need. Just 40% of IDPs have access to functioning latrines.

One woman, who has been living with her husband and five children in a camp for the past three years, said: “I live in a one-room tent. I added a small cooking station and thin mattresses to cover the rest of the room, which we use during the day and night as it is the only space we have. I do everything in this one room, sleep, cook, wash clothes, bathe, everything. There is no door. We have a cover which we roll up and down to enter or leave the tent. Anyone can enter. Can anyone live in a tent and feel safe? Impossible.”

She added: “We always run out of water. Like today, we don’t have water. The communal tanks are empty. I don’t have the purchasing power to buy water. Other people do but I don’t. I take a little from my neighbours just so my children and I can drink. I must wait for the organization to come and fill the tanks, which I think happens twice a week. It’s better than nothing.”

It is imperative that the UN Security Council renews authorization of that mechanism before it expires on 10 July.

Diana Semaan, Amnesty International

People living in the camps told Amnesty International that every winter season they struggle to stay warm, keep their tent and belongings dry, and carry out their daily chores, including fetching water and accessing latrines, as their movements are hindered by heavy rains, flooding and muddy roads. In addition, they resort to burning plastic, wood, or any inflammable material inside the tent to stay warm during the winter, a practice that has caused at least 68 fire incidents in 2022.

Health workers interviewed told Amnesty International that the tents in the camps represent a risk to health as they have contributed to the transmission of contagious diseases. They added that the poor quality of water and sewage treatment has led to the spread of waterborne diseases.

Gender-based violence

Humanitarian workers told Amnesty International that overcrowding, a lack of privacy, unfenced camps, the inability to lock tents and their exclusion from decision-making processes have exposed women and girls to a range of gender-based violence, including violence by family members, camp management and residents, strangers and humanitarian workers.

One aid worker said: “Every type of GBV that you know and can think of exists in north-west Syria, especially in camps. It includes verbal harassment by male family members, physical violence also by male family members, rape, and sexual exploitation.”

The style and location of communal latrines and bathing facilities, established without any consultation with women in the vast majority of camps, all contribute to the risk of gender-based violence. This issue is worsened by poor lighting, unlockable doors and latrines that are unsegregated by gender and constructed in isolated areas.

One humanitarian worker said: “Women go to communal bathrooms together in groups or accompanied by a relative. At night, they are scared to go alone, so if there isn’t anyone accompanying them, then they either use a makeshift toilet or hold it in until the morning.”

Reduced aid, limited health care

Since the start of the armed conflict, the Syrian government has relentlessly attacked the healthcare system in north-west Syria and obstructed the delivery of medical aid, impacting the right to health for millions of people.

Reductions in international aid over the past year have seriously undermined living conditions for north-west Syria’s residents and IDPs, leading to shortages of staff, medicine, equipment, and reduced operational capacities, prompting health facilities to scale down or halt their operations and vital services.

Need for sustainable interventions 

Increasingly over the past few years, donors and humanitarian organizations have not been able to provide people living in camps with adequate access to essential services due to insufficient funding. In addition, as the crisis grew more and more protracted, their interventions have often continued to focus more on life-saving assistance, rather than sustainable, durable solutions.

A humanitarian worker said: “The problem is that we never attempt to solve the underlying causes of several issues in camps like health, protection, etc. For example, we know very well what causes Leishmaniasis [a waterborne disease]. We allocated funding for medication every year for it, instead of working towards connecting camps to water sources, stop the water trucking, and building a sewage system. The same old approach of an emergency response is no longer enough. We need to integrate it with other approaches that would provide durable solutions.”

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