Fighting in the Syrian capital Damascus has added to a growing problem of displacement within Syria, with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) now estimating that 1.5 million people are displaced across the country.
Thousands of people fled their homes in the capital this week after rebels fighting the government engaged in sustained battles in parts of Damascus for the first time in 16 months of conflict.
“It was clear that if we stayed longer, we probably would not have another chance to leave,” said Hazrid*, an activist and computer engineer from central Damascus, who fled to a rural area north of the capital when fighting escalated on 19 July. “When I left, things were already getting dangerous, especially at the exit roads. There is disorder all over the place. The streets were full of people trying to escape the city. We’ve seen burned vehicles on the road, a tank and a bus, and four cars that were totally wrecked.”
On 19 July, SARC opened 18 shelters in safer parts of Damascus and its surroundings, and already, “a few thousand” people have arrived in those centres, Khaled Erksoussi, SARC head of operations, told IRIN.
Many more are staying with friends and relatives, aid workers say, and those with the means have fled the country altogether - with an estimated 18,000** crossing into Lebanon in two days this week, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
Tareq*, a young lawyer from central Damascus, said he stayed despite feeling unsafe, because he had nowhere else to go.
“Most people we see on the streets are from towns like Homs, Hama or Dera’a,” he told IRIN. “They are trying to get out of the city because they consider any place better than Damascus now. You can see the sadness on their faces. They are just standing outside, waiting for the mercy of God.”
The humanitarian impact of the crisis could soon spiral out of control, if the fighting in the capital continues.
“If a huge number of people come to shelters, nobody could cope with that,” Erksoussi said.
As the main aid agency on the ground, through which all assistance must be channelled, SARC has only been able to reach 900,000-950,000 - or less than two-thirds - of the displaced, Erksoussi said. SARC estimates another 2.5 million people have been otherwise affected by the conflict. “We didn’t even [get to them] yet.”
Challenges to the response
He blames the gap on a lack of funds.
“There is a lot of attention on Syria,” he said, “But from the humanitarian point of view, nobody is really putting his hand in his pocket and putting his money where his mouth is.”
He said donors are still reluctant to support SARC’s work in Syria - instead funding operations supporting refugees in surrounding countries, where the situation is not as dire.
While the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) agrees more funding is “urgently” required - only one-fifth of its US$180** million appeal has been received - aid workers say operational capacity has been another problem.
In al-Nabak, for example, where an influx of displaced people has roughly doubled the population to 80,000, the local sub-section of SARC was “completely unprepared for the scale of this”, according to Paul Stromberg, deputy representative of UNHCR in Syria. “It’s really a question of capacity.”
UNHCR and others have been trying to support SARC with additional staff, warehousing, computers for registration, techniques for distribution and assistance in the distribution of items, he said.
After many months of negotiations, the government agreed in June to allow select UN agencies, international NGOs and community-based organizations to take part in a humanitarian response plan. But many distributions of relief items have been slow to get started.
Security is also a blockage. “To set up in some of these places is really high risk,” Stromberg said.
UN agencies have imported armoured cars to Syria to help them move safely, but until now, SARC has not been able to access the old town of Homs, for example.
|People are afraid. Nobody knows what is going to happen, so everybody started storing bread at home|
Secondary and tertiary displacement is an increasing problem, as conflict has followed some people to their areas of refuge.
Among those displaced by recent fighting in Qudsiya and Dummar in rural Damascus were displaced people from other governorates who had sought shelter there, according to a 5 July OCHA bulletin.
This past week, SARC was forced to evacuate some of its shelters and move the displaced to a second area.
In this context, SARC is encouraging people who had fled to the capital earlier in the conflict to return to their areas of origin if it is safe to do so, “because now all of the heat is on Damascus”.
Many have already begun doing so. Yesterday evening, activists in Homs reported that four buses of displaced locals had returned to the city.
But such returns are not always possible - and not only because of sustained violence.
“Many people’s homes have been damaged,” UNHCR’s Stromberg told IRIN. “Beyond the psychological effect is the ability to go back to a place with running water, electricity and where they can find the basic necessities.”
The return of the displaced is aggravating the humanitarian situation in cities like Homs, where food and medical supplies are already heavily strained.
“First, Homs was shelled; now Damascus is shelled,” Waleed*, an activist in Homs, told IRIN. “I am sure that we will receive a lot more people in the next few days. There is no safe place left in Syria.”
But he said many people are turning to homes destroyed by heavy bombardment. “We are now preparing shelters where we can put them up, in schools, churches and mosques,” he said.
The displacement has put a strain on local resources and infrastructure, with many towns doubling their population by taking in displaced people.
“With displacement increasing and resources dwindling, tension is reportedly growing between the displaced and their host communities,” OCHA wrote in its 5 July bulletin.
SARC’s Erksoussi said he expected the rise in violence in Damascus to be temporary. Many families have stocked up on food in their homes in case of such an event, he added.
But residents say shortages of supply are increasing quickly in Damascus, where shops had still been comparatively well stocked until the outbreak of fighting.
“You will still find bakeries that sell bread, but huge amounts of people are crowding in front of them,” said Tareq, the young lawyer. “People are afraid. Nobody knows what is going to happen, so everybody started storing bread at home.”
The future may hold other problems. Many of the displaced have sought shelter in dozens of schools across the country, and may have to be relocated come the start of the school year in September.
“There are concerns that are very urgent in the next month or two,” UNHCR’s Stromberg said.
Throughout this week’s violence in Damascus, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) furnished five schools with mattresses and household items to house people in need of shelter. Asked what would happen when the school-term started, spokesperson Cecilia Goin answered: “It’s one day at a time.”
SARC is discussing with the Ministry of Education the possibility of keeping the schools open to displaced people past the start date of the school terms, and squeezing students into the remaining schools.
“We will have to try to manage somehow,” Erksoussi said. “The solution must not be putting people in camps.”
UN agencies are also concerned about a possible lack of clean or adequate water, and disruption to things like refuse collection.
“It’s now in many areas 37-40 degrees,” Stromberg said. “If people aren’t able to wash and there isn’t adequate sanitation, that’s a problem that will cause a number of knock-on problems in the heat.”
Some aid workers have already started warning that there is only a short window of time to put in place preparations for winter. But, for Erksoussi, there are many more immediate concerns: “When we reach this bridge, we will cross it. It’s a crisis situation, I cannot plan that much.”
Still, he warned that recovery programmes - like the rebuilding of homes and counselling for traumatized students - must be built into the aid effort, so displaced people can eventually go home; and children can go back to school.
*Not a real name
**This story was amended on 20 July to update the number of Syrians who crossed into Lebanon and to correct the size of the UN appeal.