Camps for displaced grow in southern Syria
BEIRUT // Tent cities are springing up in southern Syria to cope with the swelling numbers of refugees fleeing violence but unable to get safe passage across the border into Jordan.
What began as a handful of tents pitched on farmland as temporary homes, have morphed into sprawling settlements housing up to 20,000 people from as far away as Aleppo, almost 500 kilometres to the north.
“Unfortunately the camps are squalid, there are no facilities in them, just tents and people. Most of them have no toilets or sanitary systems, there isn’t water, there is no electrify, it’s a bad, bad situation in there,” said a Syrian aid worker who co-ordinates relief efforts in Deraa with international aid agencies.
More than 62,000 refugees are currently living in Deraa province near the Jordan border, according to estimates by aid agencies, although no exact figures are available.
Syria’s uprising began in Deraa in March 2011, with peaceful protests against corrupt officials and a one party police state that has ruled for more than four decades. President Bashar Al Assad’s regime responded with lethal violence, beginning a war that has killed more than 150,000 people and driven a third of the population out of their homes.
Two of the main camps in Deraa province are at Naseeb and Tal Ishab, the former now home to 20,000 people, the latter housing 15,000. Other, smaller, tent settlements, home to thousands of refugees, are dotted around the villages in the zone close to Syria’s frontier with Jordan.
Refugees have filled most available buildings, according to activists and aid workers, living in schools, mosques and farm outbuildings.
The expansion happened with little fanfare, and was hardly noticed by the international media because foreign journalists and aid organisations have no direct access inside Syria’s southern front.
With no prospect of Syria’s war ending soon, more refugees are expected — all likely to be living in tents for years. Efforts are underway to improve the camps and to ensure that new facilities are better equipped for longer term occupancy.
“We are trying to improve conditions, and we are building new camps in safer areas, we are putting in toilets and kitchens and a field hospital”, said Ahmad Masri, a manager with the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), the humanitarian aid arm of the opposition Syrian National Coalition.
Work on these newer camps began early this year, with plans to build three able to house a total of 35,000 people.
“Many people have nowhere to stay, their homes have been bombed and, even if the regime were to fall tomorrow, they would have nowhere to return to, the refugee problem is going to exist until there is a real political solution, it will take years for people to return home,” Mr Masri said.
“We are trying to take that fact into account and while the tents are not an ideal solution, they are better than nothing,” he said.
The tent cities provide shelter but little security in a war zone. In February one of the under-constriction camps was hit by three artillery shells, destroying and setting fire to tents. There were no casualties because it was uninhabited at the time. Aid workers asked the name and location of the camp to be kept secret in an effort to stop it being targeted in the future.
“We don’t know if the regime deliberately hit the tents, but it’s always a possibility, there is no protection for people there,” said an official working with a Western aid agency, who helps coordinate relief in Deraa.
Conditions for civilians have worsened in southern Syria since the February launch of a rebel offensive, with intense fighting and counter assaults by regime forces, including heavy aerial bombardment and barrel bombings. Rebels have made small inroads, but no dramatic gains.
“A major problem we have is the scale, we just cannot cope and the Syrian authorities do not allow the international aid agencies, or the UN, to cross the border and get into the camps,” said an aid volunteer from Deraa.
On February 22 the UN Security Council passed resolution 2139, demanding the Syrian government and rebels give unfettered access for humanitarian aid, including cross border supplies. To date, only one crossing point between Turkey and Syria has officially allowed international relief through.
Jordan has also kept a tight hold on its border. Although it officially remains open, many of the refugees living along the frontier are waiting to get permission to cross, a difficult process that is usually not successful.
Aid workers in southern Syria say the border is closed more often than it is open to civilian traffic, with both the Syrian regime and Jordanians preventing crossings.
“Jordan doesn’t want another few hundred thousand people coming in, and they would if they knew the border was open, we have families coming down from northern Syria because they prefer Jordan to Turkey which is easier for them to get into,” said the aid worker from the Western relief agency.
Getting across the border into Jordan is time consuming and far from an assured process for refugees. They are required to submit their names to the rebel Free Syrian Army, which then passes them on to security forces in Amman for vetting. It typically takes four months, after which those approved to cross are allowed to enter Jordan. “The Jordanians know everything that comes across their border, which is good because it has helped stop terrorists coming in, but it also makes problems — we’ve been stopped from bringing in simple items, including school supplies, because they were suspicious,” said the aid volunteer.
“They let food through, and that’s good, we understand why they control things tightly but sometimes it hinders aid work,” he said.
Updated: April 29, 2014 04:00 AM