• Immense humanitarian needs remain for people in northwest Syria despite a relatively calm security situation under the current ceasefire. Further scale-up is needed as the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies people’s needs and hampers response efforts. Urgent emergency needs are increasingly being exacerbated by needs associated with those of people in longer-term displacement.
• Some 126,000 people displaced in northwest Syria have moved to areas in Idleb and western Aleppo governorates from which they were displaced since 1 December 2019. This includes some 106,000 people who returned to their areas of origin and some 20,000 people who arrived back to areas to which they were previously displaced prior to the latest displacement. Nearly three quarters went back in the first half of April.
• To date, no cases of COVID-19 have been identified in northwest Syria. Humanitarian response efforts continue to focus on preparedness and response planning to minimise potential impact of COVID-19 on communities and on humanitarian partners.
The humanitarian situation for people remains alarming across northwest Syria. While active hostilities came to a halt in early March, the impact of recent military operations as well as multiple displacements, economic hardship and years of conflict continue to affect the lives of civilians. Of the nearly 1 million people in the area who fled their homes to escape from hostilities between December and early March, some 854,000 people reportedly remain in displacement, a figure comprising many vulnerable groups such as the elderly, persons with disabilities, and female- or child-headed households. Though displacement has largely stopped, the humanitarian needs of the people who have been displaced and the preexisting needs of the wider community remain extremely high.
Humanitarian needs are increasing for some people in some parts of western Aleppo governorate and southern Idleb governorate as thousands of families reportedly return to areas from which they fled, compounded as many services in these locations were suspended or moved elsewhere as a result of recent hostilities. According to an assessment conducted by a UN partner on 16 April, 106,000 people displaced since 1 December 2019 have voluntarily returned to their areas of origin in Idleb and western Aleppo governorates. An additional 20,000 who had been previously displaced to these areas from other parts of northwest Syria due to hostilities prior to December 2019 also reportedly arrived back to their former place of displacement. Some 71 percent of all who returned – nearly 90,000 people – did so in the first half of April, while 29 percent reportedly returned in March. Nearly 60 percent departed from Dana in Idleb governorate and A’zaz and Afrin in Aleppo governorate. Atareb in western Aleppo governorate and Ariha in Idleb governorate each received around a quarter of all who returned, with most others returning to Daret Azza in western Aleppo governorate and Sarmin, Ehsem, Jisr-AshShugur and Mhambal in Idleb governorate. Some 80 percent of the 126,000 people who returned to where they lived before the latest displacement are women and children, corresponding with the proportion of women and children among the overall population of those recently displaced in northwest Syria.
The most urgent needs of the recently displaced individuals continue to be shelter, water, sanitation and hygiene, food and protection. Concurrently, as the displaced population begins to settle in, needs with longer term impacts are increasing in prominence, such as health, nutrition and education services. Additional needs have also arisen in light of the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people living in northwest Syria, on local health systems, and on the humanitarian partners delivering assistance.
As of 17 April, there are no known cases of COVID-19 in northwest Syria, while 38 cases have been confirmed in other parts of Syria, including two fatalities. Current impacts on the humanitarian situation of people in northwest Syria are due to countermeasures taken to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19. Precautions introduced by local authorities reportedly include closure of schools, private clinics and some markets, banning gatherings of people including for religious services, reducing operations of businesses including restaurants and grocery stores, and imposing curfews. At the Bab AlHawa and Bab Al-Salam border crossings between Turkey and Syria, individuals are no longer permitted to cross except in medical emergencies, although both crossings remain open for humanitarian and commercial shipments, with similar restrictions in place at crossing points between Idleb and northern Aleppo. At the border, infection prevention and control (IPC) measures are in place at all entry points, with monitoring on both sides of the border as well as cross-line points in northwest Syria coordinated by Turkish authorities and supported by Health Cluster partners.
The current humanitarian response to COVID-19 in northwest Syria is focused on two areas: (i) prevention of, and preparedness for, potential cases, and (ii) ensuring that humanitarian assistance continues while mitigating the risk posed by COVID-19 to communities and to humanitarian workers. A revised COVID-19 preparedness and response plan for northwest Syria was issued on 5 April, concentrating on scaling up capacities for prevention, early detection and rapid response to COVID-19 in Idleb and the Afrin and A’zaz to Jarablus area of northern Aleppo. Covering a minimum period of three months, from April to June 2020, the plan identifies a funding requirement of US$ 31 million for coordination and planning, risk communication and community engagement, surveillance, rapid response and case investigation, readying points of entry, capacitating laboratories, case management, IPC, and operational support and logistics.
A laboratory in Idleb has been equipped to test for COVID-19 samples from the Idleb area since 24 March. In some instances, samples from the Afrin and A’zaz to Jarablus area of northern Aleppo are sent to laboratories in Turkey for testing. The laboratory in Idleb has a testing capacity of some 5,000 samples; of the 160 tests conducted as of 16 April, all have returned negative results. WHO and humanitarian partners have begun the process of capacitating two additional laboratories in northwest Syria to test for COVID-19. The process is also ongoing to procure 90 ventilators, eight oxygen concentrators and three X-ray machines for hospitals in northwest Syria, in addition to the existing 203 ventilators.
To treat confirmed cases, three hospitals supported by Health Cluster partners are ready to receive patients in the coming weeks, and three additional hospitals with ICUs are being modified and repurposed as COVID-19 isolation case management centres, in Idleb, Salqin and Daret Azza. Each of these will have a 70-bed capacity comprising 30 ICU beds for severe cases requiring ventilators, 30 beds for cases requiring close follow-up and treatment for underlying conditions, and 10 beds for patients pending discharge. One other hospital has been identified in northern Aleppo governorate to potentially be similarly repurposed. As self-isolation is largely not feasible in the densely populated northwest Syria, community-based isolation (CBI) centres are being planned to separate and limit the movement of people with low risk profiles presenting mild COVID-19 symptoms. Six humanitarian partners have begun installing CBI centres with a total capacity of 260 beds in six locations in Idleb governorate.
Humanitarian partners are nuancing existing plans to adjust for new service and delivery modalities to accommodate COVID-19 precautions while enabling operational continuity. Wherever possible, activities have been shifted to virtual platforms or phone-based engagement, including for coordination and for awareness raising, education, and case management services, and gatherings have been further reduced through scale-ups of door-to-door distributions and consolidating distributions. Critical enabling factors for new ways of working are being analysed to address associated vulnerabilities and opportunities. An extensive communication awareness campaign on individual precautionary measures against COVID-19 has also been implemented across northwest Syria, amplified through mosques, local communities, and social and traditional media.
- UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
- To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.