The Assad regime's Russia-backed military offensive against the last rebel-held area of northwestern Syria caused the biggest single displacement of the nine-year conflict, U.N. humanitarian officials said on Thursday.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that at least 800,000 people —including an estimated 480,000 children and 168,000 women — fled the fighting since the start of December.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, with Russia's support, launched an offensive on southern and eastern Idlib province and southern and western Aleppo, home to an estimated 4 million people. Many of them already were displaced by war from elsewhere in Syria.
With those areas under attack, the possibilities for escape are dwindling. The latest displacement has caused massive overcrowding in refugee camps and left others stranded in cold temperatures near the border with Turkey. Several children were reported to have died due to the freezing, wintry weather.
"People in northwest Syria are living through some of the worst crisis since the war in Syria began. More than 800,000 people have been displaced since 1 December, due to intense conflict in freezing weather," OCHA said in its latest situation report.
"The humanitarian community is doing everything it can but is overwhelmed by the scale of needs. An immediate cessation of the violence is critical," it said. "More resources, including funding, is immediately needed to save people’s lives and alleviate their suffering."
The severe emergency compounds an already dire situation for millions of vulnerable people, with lack of shelter the most urgent problem, according to U.N. officials. The conflict in Syria has killed more than 380,000 people since the 2011 peaceful uprising against Assad’s government spiraled into a cyclone of death and destruction and the world’s most complex humanitarian crisis.
Cease-fire urgently needed
David Swanson, the United Nations' regional spokesperson for Syria's crisis, predicted the number of people displaced would soar further beyond 800,000 as the military offensive continues.
“This level of displacement couldn’t come at a worse time as more and more people are squeezed into an increasingly smaller area of land with little more than the clothes on their back,” he said. “The crisis is deepening by the minute, but the international community remains indifferent."
About 550,000 of the newly displaced people in Idlib province are competing for shelter in a place already overrun with uprooted people. The other 250,000 newly displaced people descended on northern Aleppo, in areas controlled by Turkey and allied Syrian groups. While Russia backs Assad's troops, the United States has led an international coalition fighting Islamic State group militants.
Humanitarian aid organizations appealed for all sides to immediately halt the violence.
“Unimaginably, an already catastrophic situation in northwest Syria is getting even worse. It is bitterly cold in Idlib at the moment, thousands of people are sheltering in tents, in unfinished buildings and in their vehicles," Misty Buswell, a regional policy and advocacy director for the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement.
“As people lose their homes, see their children killed by airstrikes or before their eyes as they desperately try to keep them warm, it is not only the humanitarian situation in Idlib that is at breaking point, but the people there too," she said. "We urgently need a cease-fire to prevent further loss of life. But there must also be accountability for the violations of international humanitarian law that continue to so frequently occur and there must be an immediate return to the U.N.-led peace process.”