Conditions deteriorate for civilians amid fighting in north-eastern Syria

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic – to whom quoted text may be attributed – at today’s press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is increasingly worried for the safety of civilians trapped in ISIL-held areas of Hajin enclave in Deir ez-Zor governorate in northeast Syria. We are also concerned for the situation for civilians who have managed to escape the armed conflict. UNHCR and other humanitarian partners are racing to meet the urgent needs of vulnerable civilians who have arrived at the Al Hol camp in Hassakeh. We are supporting them with immediate shelter, and relief items.

More than 10,000 people have fled from the conflict zone to Al Hol camp just in the past week. Since fighting escalated in Hajin in early December, more than 23,000 people have fled to Al Hol, effectively tripling its population. Many more are expected.

Those fleeing speak of fierce fighting and a heavy toll on civilians with casualties widespread. Food and medical supplies are hard to come by. Civilian infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed. Families who managed to escape the fighting say that ISIL is preventing other civilians from leaving the area.

UNHCR reiterates once again its call to all parties to the conflict, and those with influence over them, to take all possible action to ensure that civilians and infrastructure are protected in line with International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law. Safe passage for civilians is critically important and must be ensured.

Families fleeing the Hajin enclave and surrounding areas have also told us of a harrowing journey to safety. They travel at night with barely any belongings, often having to wade through mine fields and open fighting. On reaching positions of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), they describe being herded into open trucks and having to endure another arduous journey in winter weather northwards to Al Hol camp. Little or no assistance is provided en route to the hungry and cold people, the vast majority of whom are women and children. Since early December at least 29 young children and new-borns died while on their journey or shortly after their arrival.  Malnourishment and hypothermia have been the principal causes of death. Medical facilities in Hassakeh town, where the most critical cases are referred to from the camp, are overstretched caring for acutely malnourished children.

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