As the Syrian civil war drags on, fierce fighting continues between the Free Syrian Army . In this war, the non-combatant population must contend with intense fear and danger, “civilians – ordinary men, women and children – are bearing the brunt of the violence.” Mortars fired at villages and urban neighborhoods often land on houses, apartment buildings, and shops. Government airplanes and helicopters drop bombs. In addition, summary executions, targeted killings, and disappearances of individuals and entire families have been on the rise since August. In many cases the culprit is unclear or unstated, whether they are proxy government thugs (al-Shabeeha) or militant groups. People walking and driving around their towns and cities also fall victims to sniper fire and checkpoint violence.
To date, the number of people killed in the eighteen-month uprising is more than 23,000, with tens of thousands of people wounded and struggling to find medical care in the besieged areas. The government continues to cut electricity and water supplies, as punishment to rebellious areas as well as due to the challenges of maintaining state services.
Heavy fighting in Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs in September, along with roadblocks and other factors, prevented some from fleeing to more stable areas. Given the widespread destruction of both homes and business undoubtedly many more will choose, or be forced, to flee for safety.
In late August and early September, the Turkish government closed the border at Bab al-Salameh in Kilis province for security reasons while also claiming there was no place for the refugees to be housed nearby. Turkey now allows some five hundred refugees to cross this border daily. As a result, according to UNICEF, some fourteen thousand Syrians are massed waiting to cross. Turkish border guards have allowed aid to be sent across the border into Syria for those trapped between the border and the fighting in their nearby villages and towns. As of mid-October, Turkey’s Disaster Management Agency (AFAD) reported that there are over 100,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey. Turkey has fourteen refugee camps and restricts access in and out of the camps. The government maintains tight control on the provision of aid to the refugees but has recently requested financial and material assistance, which prompted the UN along with a number of governments and aid organizations to step forward.
Since August, the northern Syrian border area has seen heavy fighting between the rebels and the Syrian government. On 3 October, a Syrian shell fell on the Turkish town of Akcakale, just inside the border, killing five. Turkey responded with mortars. The Turkish parliament then approved a provision that allows it, if necessary, to take military action outside of its borders for the period of one year. Back and forth movement across some of the border areas has also been reported. This includes stories of those in need of medical care crossing into Turkey and then returning to their homes in Syria either by force or by choice, as well as fighters and others with family members on the other side of the border seeking temporary respite from the fighting.
Since September, the Turkish government has also been trying to relocate Syrian refugees living in Turkish towns into camps. A number of cases were reported in the Antakya area of officials showing up at apartments where Syrians were living and threatening them with deportation if they did not move to one of the camps.
According to UNHCR, Syrian refugees are concentrated in northern Lebanon (thirty-nine percent of the refugee population in Lebanon) and the Bekaa Valley (twenty-nine percent), with only two percent of those registered in Beirut. In northern Lebanon, refugees have been taken in by Lebanese host families thus straining local and community resources. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), “Lebanese border villages, such as Kfartoum and Akroum, also no longer have the capacity to host the growing refugee population and rent options are scarce.” The aid community has decided to relocate families that were living in schools. Pre-fabricated units are being installed in a number of towns in Lebanon, and unfinished houses are being completed to house refugees.
Syrian refugees are entering Iraq mainly in two areas – the Kurdistan region (Dahuk), which hosts over 30,000 refugees, and al-Qa’im border crossing. The Iraqi government has been intermittently opening and closing al-Qa’im crossing and restricting the entry of adult men (even with families). The UNHCR and IOM in Domiz camp in Dahuk, with over 19,000 people, have shifted away from providing hot meals to distributing cooking equipment. In al-Qa’im, a new camp is being constructed that will host 25,000 people. Currently, child-friendly spaces exist for one hundred children and health cases are referred outside the camp to Al-Qa’im Hospital.
[Newly-arrived Syrian refugee children are helped by Jordanian soldiers after they crossed the border from Tal Shehab city in Syria, through the Al Yarmouk River valley, into Thnebeh town, in Ramtha , Jordan, 5 September 2012. Image by Mohammad Hannon/AP Photo.]
More than half of the refugees in Jordan are from the Deraa province in southern Syria. The Jordanian military continues to help refugees get from the border safely, including transporting them to Zaatari camp. This both protects the refugees from the weather and border dangers, and ensures monitoring of the refugees and their containment in the camp.
Host countries have been acutely aware of the plight of children and their disrupted lives. The governments of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey with the assistance of UN and other international and local organizations, are all addressing the issues faced by school-aged children. This has been made easier by the concentrations of Syrian refugees in camps and specific areas. In Dohuk, Iraq, local Ministry of Education offices, along with UNICEF and UNHCR, set up a summer school as well as a child-friendly space. In Jordan’s Zaatari Camp, UNICEF set up “temporary learning spaces” that employ Jordanian teachers teaching the Jordanian curriculum in double shifts for over 2000 children. In addition, UNICEF has built two large playgrounds and a football pitch for older children and youth. The Jordanian Ministry of Education agreed in Ramtha to operate schools in double shifts for refugee children living in the host community.
[Syrians walk through the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, 13 September 2012. Image by Clemens Bilan/AP Photo/dapd.]
Refugees in the desert camp have expressed dissatisfaction with its harsh conditions, including extreme heat and cold and constant dust-laden winds. Resource-poor Jordan is struggling to deal with the influx of refugees from the Syrian civil war. Jordanian officials estimate that 150,000 Syrians are seeking refuge in their country.
Over 30,000 refugees are living in Zaatari camp. It has just opened 176 communal kitchens in order to transition families from the provision of hot meals to dry food rations that they prepare themselves. Water – amount, availability, and hygiene – remains an issue. While aid and governmental agencies provide temporary assistance and facilities for food and water in the camps, refugees are expressing how difficult it is to live in inadequate tent housing in harsh desert conditions. Thus, when they are able, refugees are leaving the camp.