Syria’s Forgotten Displaced Aren’t Equipped to Fight the Pandemic

The regime has restricted aid to those who fled Afrin in 2018, leaving them without test kits, basic supplies, or access to specialist care.

Refugees displaced from Afrin line up to receive bread from the Syrian Red Crescent in Ahras, Syria, on March 25, 2018.
Refugees displaced from Afrin line up to receive bread from the Syrian Red Crescent in Ahras, Syria, on March 25, 2018. Afshin Ismaeli/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

After a brutal battle to oust the Islamic State in 2016, villages in Shehba, a canton in the Afrin region of northwest Syria, were left in ruins. Shehba—a triangle between the cities of Afrin, Azez, and Aleppo—had suffered three years of occupation by the terrorist group. Pro-Islamic State graffiti and bloodstains lined the walls of the villages.

In January 2018, Turkey launched a cross-border military operation into Afrin to clear the area of the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG), with support from a Syrian rebel force known as the Syrian National Army. Turkey considers the YPG an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which operates inside Turkish borders.

The Turkish incursion displaced 300,000 people—the majority Kurdish—living in the city of Afrin, and about half fled to villages in surrounding Shehba. Of that group, some 140,000 internally displaced people now live in makeshift housing, including abandoned buildings and bombed-out houses, across the region’s villages. Around 10,000 others live in five camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) set up by local Kurdish administrators.

Those sheltering in Shehba have cleared the vast majority of unexploded ordnance left behind by is the Islamic State, started growing crops, and in some cases rehabilitated half-destroyed homes. But more than two years on, some say they feel forgotten—surrounded by Syrian government forces on one side and Turkish-backed rebels on the other.

While the majority of IDPs in Syria are now located in areas held by one warring side, those in Shehba are caught in a precarious position between the Syrian regime, supported by Russia, and the Syrian National Army, supported by Turkey. When Turkey launched its Afrin operation, Russia condoned the attack but stopped the Turkish-backed forces from taking Shehba, seeking to maintain a strategic presence.

The Syrian regime aims to restrict humanitarian assistance to areas outside of its control, such as Shehba, which is under Kurdish authority. The restrictions leave those sheltering there with limited access to basic supplies and medical care, and have placed them especially at risk during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We live here like a flower among fires.”

As confirmed cases of COVID-19 tick up—with many likely not officially recorded—now is the time for the international community to act in Shehba. “We live here like a flower among fires,” said Hasan, an IDP from Afrin who requested to use only his first name.

The regime of President Bashar al-Assad controls checkpoints into and out of Shehba, restricting the freedom of movement and the flow of aid and essential goods through extortion. Not a single international organization has entered Shehba since April 2018, according to Shiler Sido, the Kurdish Red Crescent spokesperson in Shehba. “They let people come here who are close to the agenda of the Syrian regime, but other than that they don’t let anyone in,” Sido said.

Each checkpoint has its own way of collecting funds, but those erected by the 4th Armored Division, led by the president’s brother, Maher al-Assad, is known to demand the highest sums, Sido said.

Some IDPs in Shehba said the Syrian government neglects them because they are Kurdish, pointing to a history of discrimination by the Assad regime. Before the civil war, the government provided few services in Afrin, including education and transportation. “I think in the presence of the Syrian government, NGOs never come here … it is a forgotten area,” Hasan said. “They make your existence here political.”

Throughout their displacement, those sheltering in Shehba have had difficulty accessing specialized health care. The situation has compounded the challenge of containing the coronavirus in the region. As of Sept. 21, there were 52 active COVID-19 cases in Shehba, with seven confirmed deaths. The KRC believes the true number of cases to be higher: It does not have enough test kits for everyone with symptoms.

There is just one medical facility in Shehba, which is akin to a field hospital. It has only 50 beds and lacks the specialist staff and adequate medical supplies to meet the needs of thousands of IDPs. The Kurdish Red Crescent is converting another facility to treat COVID-19 patients, but it only has room for 20 beds. Others are instructed to quarantine at home.

Those manning the regime checkpoints have undermined the pandemic response in Shehba. Despite a sizable outbreak in nearby Aleppo, security forces allegedly didn’t monitor the symptoms of people crossing into Shehba to visit relatives, according to Sido.

And as the coronavirus spread in Shehba in August, the Kurdish-led Health Committee in northeast Syria loaded face masks, gloves, and other personal protective equipment onto trucks bound for Shehba—but none made it through the regime checkpoints. The Kurdish Red Crescent started making masks using any materials at hand, including old clothes.

Only three diagnostic test kits have crossed through the checkpoints, according to Sido. Without widely available testing, health care workers rely on their knowledge of COVID-19 symptoms to diagnose and isolate patients.

The Kurdish administration also sent a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine used to test for the coronavirus to Shehba, but it has allegedly been held up in Aleppo by Syrian government authorities. Those at the Red Crescent in Shehba say they will likely have to pay an extortionate amount of money to regime authorities for the machine, as with other medical supplies. “The people at the security barriers know PCR machines cost a lot of money, so they have to make money out of it,” Sido said.

Those needing specialist care, such as a cardiologist, a surgeon, or a ventilator, must travel to Aleppo. But in order to reach the city, IDPs in Shehba must cross through three checkpoints, which sources say can cost up to $195 in bribes. The Syrian security forces only allow their own ambulance to travel into Shehba to pick up patients who have registered on a waiting list.

The Syrian security forces only allow their own ambulance to travel into Shehba to pick up patients who have registered on a waiting list.

An alternative, according to Hasan, is to pay bribes to the Iranian militia groups who are stationed in the west of Shehba and smuggle people to Aleppo and back again, starting at 50,000 Syrian pounds, or around $25.

The Syrian government has long prioritized aid to civilians in regime areas and often blocked the U.N. from accessing regions held by the opposition. UNICEF and the World Food Program provide water and food boxes to the five camps in Shehba, but only through in-country partner organizations affiliated with the regime—namely, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

Sido said this is a political move. “When Turkey started its war against Afrin in its so-called Olive Branch Operation, the Syrian government turned a blind eye,” she said. “Because of political agendas the U.N. are affected by, they neglect us, too,” she said.

The spokesperson for the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Syria, Danielle Moylan, said that the coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll on the humanitarian response in every part of Syria. “OCHA and U.N. agencies work to consistently advocate with all parties for humanitarian access so that assistance can reach those who need it in a principled manner,” she said.

The Assad regime’s strategy of restricting humanitarian aid to areas beyond its control goes against the impartial values of the United Nations. Its agencies say they must strike a delicate balance to continue offering what assistance they can—or risk being kicked out of Syria if they overstep the regime’s line. Others argue that donors should demand higher standards.

As the IDPs in Shehba continue to call on the international community for humanitarian assistance, Sido said she doesn’t expect the regime to suddenly lift its restrictions. While humanitarian law requires the consent of the government to operate within its borders, states should not have unlimited freedom to refuse humanitarian aid on arbitrary grounds.

Refugees and IDPs across Syria deserve lasting solutions to their displacement in the immediate future. If aid continues to be restricted, then displacement in places such as Shehba risks becoming permanent.

Tessa Fox is a freelance journalist, photographer, and filmmaker. She focuses on war, conflict, and human rights in the Middle East. Twitter: @Tessa_Fox

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