When Aaisha Hamadi finally left the northeast Syria camp where she had been sheltering since fleeing the war in 2017, she never dreamed she would return. But after a difficult year in the city of Raqqa, selling scrap metal she found in the trash to survive, the mother of five had no choice but to go back.
“We couldn’t pay rent or feed the children,” said the 23-year-old, sitting on the ground inside the tattered tent she shares with 12 relatives. “We didn’t think the situation in Raqqa would be [so] bad. But there’s no difference between being in a camp or being outside of one.”
Hamadi, who left Raqqa in January, told The New Humanitarian she didn’t know how long she would stay this time in Areesha camp in northeast Syria’s al-Hassakeh province. Like many other camps in the mostly Kurdish-run northeast, Areesha is at capacity, so while camp officials have allowed Hamadi and her family to stay, she’s only getting limited aid.
More than a decade into the civil war, over half of Syria’s 20 million people have been forced into flight – 6.7 million remain displaced within the country, according to the latest UN figures.
In recent years, as President Bashar al-Assad has consolidated control over large parts of the country, thousands of Syrians have been cautiously returning to their homes or settling in areas that have become safer: Some 467,000 refugees and internally displaced people went back over the course of 2020, according to a report by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).
But in recent months, Syria’s economy – already ravaged by war, corruption, COVID-19, Western sanctions, and a banking collapse in neighbouring Lebanon – has been deteriorating.
With food prices up and the currency worth less each day, more and more people in northeast Syria, which The New Humanitarian visited in May, are finding themselves in similar circumstances to Hamadi: They are unable to afford life at home so seek out shelter in camps, where families at least receive food aid and a place to sleep.
Across the northeast, the UN says some 630,000 people are displaced, sheltering in 10 camps as well as ad hoc dwellings, relatives’ houses, and public buildings. Approximately 15,000 people are now on waitlists to either enter camps in the northeast or receive aid inside them, according to a document by a group of aid organisations that works on displacement in northeast Syria, not made public but seen by The New Humanitarian.
Aid workers and government officials say demand for voluntary spots in the camps began surging around six months ago. “This influx of people wanting to get into camps is something new,” said Mahmud Krro, deputy head of the committee of social affairs for the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, which runs the area. “It’s because the [Syrian pound] is down [and] the economic situation is bad.”
Bahia Zrikem, Syria policy and advocacy adviser for the NRC, noted that over the past decade humanitarians have become used to seeing waves of displacement related to conflict in Syria, but this trend is different.
“This year, displacement is unique because it is related to the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with economic collapse and water scarcity issues [in the region],” she said. “The NRC is concerned to see that instead of trying to build a new life outside of camps, many families are trying to re-enter camps,” she added. “These new displacements are creating new needs in already overstretched camps.”
Officials at Washokani, a camp near al-Hassakeh city, told The New Humanitarian that daily requests to enter had spiked tenfold in the last six months – from 30 to 300 people.
Sites became so overrun that they closed their doors to new arrivals at the end of last year, according to Haji Hamid, who manages Washokani; while aid groups told The New Humanitarian that at least half of the camps have stopped receiving new people.
“Many people want to come, but we have no place for them,” said Hamid. “The [demand] has increased a lot. We’re under a lot of pressure.”
While many families, like Hamadi’s, left camps only to return because they couldn’t make it on their own, others who had weathered the conflict for years at home are now being displaced for the first time because of the increasingly dire economic situation.
Syria’s economy has shrunk by more than 60 percent since the war began in 2011, and the Syrian pound has lost around 78 percent of its value since September 2019.
COVID-19 has made the economic collapse even worse, with jobs lost across the country and relatives abroad less able to send money to their relatives still in Syria. More than 80 percent of Syrians now live below the poverty line and, with food prices rising, the UN says more than 12 million people, a record 60 percent of the population, do not know where their next meal will come from.
The situation won’t improve as long as there is no political solution to Syria’s crisis, said Çeleng Omer, an economist and former lecturer at Afrin University in northern Syria. “The economic situation will impede the reconstruction processes, the return of the displaced, and the revitalisation of the economy,” he said.
Already overcrowded and lacking services such as adequate food, healthcare, and housing, officials at the camps say they’re unable to take in more people. Yet some families, desperate for help, have managed to find a way in.
Areesha, where Hamadi and her family are staying, has approximately 14,000 residents, but at least 400 people have been living there unofficially since December. The camp is allowing them to remain, but officials say they can’t register them, meaning they are not eligible for most services, forcing people to rely on minimal aid, plus handouts from family or friends.
Mohamed Sobhi Kahlf, his wife, and their three children came to Areesha in January, borrowed a tent from Kahlf’s cousin, and are now living off food from neighbours in the camp.
Kahlf endured 10 years of war without being forced into a camp, even as his house in a village near Deir Ezzor was flattened by bombs. After trying to rebuild their lives in Raqqa, the family found they were unable to afford rent or food. The approximately $2 a month they earned from inconsistent farming jobs was a third of what they needed to survive, he said.
“The economic situation will impede the reconstruction processes, the return of the displaced, and the revitalisation of the economy.”
“We were there with no job, no money,” said Kahlf. “[It] was so difficult, so we decided to come here,” he said. Kahlf explained how the amount of money his family needs to live off has doubled due to inflation since 2018.
At the start of the war, 47 Syrian pounds was worth one US dollar. The official price is now 2,500 pounds to the dollar. Tough Western sanctions, specifically the Caesar Act – a US measure that came into effect last June – have prohibited many foreign companies from trading with Syria.
Those who can’t find places at the displacement sites are forced to look elsewhere.
After being turned away from a camp because it was full, 37-year-old Ahmed Qawas, his wife, and their four children came to live in a school with 32 other families. They now rely on support from a local aid group called Cody and can barely get by. “My son kept asking me for a kabob sandwich. For three days, I couldn’t buy him one,” said Qawas, wiping tears from his cheeks.
Some 5,000 displaced people live in schools in the northeast, according to the local authorities. The displacement document seen by The New Humanitarian says that between September 2020 and April 2021, nearly 3,000 people ended up living in public buildings such as schools, with the majority citing poor economic conditions as the driver.
“We’ve run out of food,” said Mohamad Said, who runs Cody and manages the school where Qawas lives. As support from the authorities and aid groups diminishes, Said said he has started asking relatives and friends in Europe for assistance to help the families.
Access issues and expansion plans
As needs both inside and outside the camps rise across Syria, low funding and access restrictions are making it harder for humanitarians to respond.
In February, the UN said it needs $4.2 billion for the 2021 aid response it coordinates with NGOs across the country. So far, it has seen only $627 million, while another $558 million has gone to relief projects outside the UN’s scope, making a total of $1.19 billion. The shortfall isn’t helped by the fact that the United Kingdom, which had been an important donor to the aid response in previous years, cut its aid to Syria by nearly a third in March.
In comparison, the UN received 58 percent of the $3.82 billion it asked for in 2020 (not including extra funding for COVID-19-related aid), and in 2019 donors came up with 64 percent of the UN’s $3.29 billion appeal.
Local aid workers say they’re struggling to plan projects more than three to six months out, and that organisations have had to cut staff and reduce rations.
Camp residents in the northeast told The New Humanitarian that in the last four months they’re only receiving a fifth of the rice and oil that they used to.
“Funding cuts to the Syria response are worrying as humanitarian needs grow across the country, particularly in the north,” said Samah Hadid, head of Middle East advocacy for the NRC. Not only is funding needed for emergencies, but also to rebuild infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, she added.
Aid access across Syria is shrinking, with the fate of the UN’s last border crossing into the rebel-held northwest currently hanging in the balance. Aid groups have said that a January 2020 UN Security Council decision to remove the UN’s ability to bring aid from Iraq into Syria had lasting consequences, hampering their ability to respond to COVID-19.
While northeast Syria is regarded as the country’s breadbasket – it is rich in oil and grains – the war has hindered production. Authorities in the northeast find themselves unable to combat the economic crisis on their own, and unsure when people will be able to leave the camps: With the presence of American, Russian, Turkish, Kurdish, and al-Assad’s troops in parts of the northeast, there are occasional flare-ups of violence, a reminder that the war is not over.
As a result, Kurdish authorities are pushing to expand the numbers of people camps can accommodate. “We have no idea when people will leave the camps or be able to go home, so organisations should invest in them,” said Hamid, who runs the Washokani camp.
But international aid groups – already stretched and strapped for resources as global aid funding remains flat (despite the new needs driven by COVID-19), and hoping to find other solutions for Syrians after so many years and cycles of displacement – are pushing back.
“Nobody is helping us go back home, and we’re suffering.”
“Camps need to remain a last resort, and economic vulnerabilities need to be addressed outside of camp settings… [otherwise] it will only result in a vicious cycle,” said one aid worker, who is familiar with the situation but not authorised to speak to the media.
Instead of expanding the camps, it’s critical that authorities, aid groups, and donors discuss sustainable solutions, such as increasing services for people out of camps in urban areas, as well as access to shelter where displaced people could resettle, the aid worker added.
Currently, there are expansion plans for two camps, and proposals to enlarge a third are still under discussion, according to the Kurdish administration. As humanitarians and authorities discuss what to do, many Syrians in the northeast are feeling increasingly helpless.
“We know our country is finished, but it’s beyond us,” said Asad, a 30-year-old who has been living in Washokani camp since 2019, when he fled the Turkish-led invasion of his hometown, Ras al-Ayn. The New Humanitarian is only using his first name to protect his identity. He tried to leave the camp and find work in Raqqa, but returned after 10 days, broke and unable to pay his rent.
“We’re displaced inside our country,” he said. “Nobody is helping us go back home, and we’re suffering.”
Additional reporting by Jamal Mohamed Bal