Syria Crisis: Northeast Syria Situation Report No. 19 (6 November - 10 December 2017)
The overall humanitarian and protection situation for civilians displaced from Ar-Raqqa city remains of high concern, particularly with regard to explosive hazards contamination, amongst other factors. Surveys and clearance of potentially contaminated areas is required to ensure access for humanitarian partners and create a safe environment that is conducive for safe, voluntary and informed returns.
Despite continued messaging against returning to areas contaminated with explosive hazards, death and injury due to mine explosions continue to be reported with alarming frequency with trauma cases nearly doubling since the height of the military offensive. Between 20 October and 13 December, approximately 209 civilians were reportedly killed and hundreds of others injured due to presence of explosive hazards in Ar-Raqqa city.
The humanitarian community has developed a joint position paper on the return to Ar-Raqqa city, highlighting the imperative of safety, voluntary, well informed and sustainable return as the criteria guiding interventions in support to the return of the displaced population.
Ongoing military operations in Deir-ez-Zor and associated heavy aerial attacks have reportedly resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties, as well as increased civilian displacement. During the reporting period, an alarming number of unconfirmed indiscriminate airstrike attacks against 15 IDP sites reportedly killed 166 civilians and injured hundreds more.
20,694 people displaced from Ar-Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor governorates between 1 – 30 November (Source: CCCM Cluster). Over 570,000 displacements recorded since November 2016
420,186 people reached with food assistance from 1 – 30 November in ArRaqqa,
Aleppo, AlHasakeh and Deir-ezZor governorates
91,610 people benefiting from nutrition assistance distributed in Ar-Raqqa, Deir-ezZor and Hassakeh governorates from 1 – 30 November
15,700 children aged 0-59 months were vaccinated against polio in Al-Hassakeh governorate from 1 – 30 November
With reduction of hostilities across the governorate since late October, thousands of IDPs seek to return to their communities of origin, likely to locations in severe need of mine action and repairs to shelters, roads and other infrastructure and with severely limited basic services.
In Ar-Raqqa city, some civilians are reportedly returning to the east and western peripheries of the city despite continued warnings by parties in control to urge residents to not return until mine clearance operations are completed. Numbers of returnees remain difficult to verify, as many people simply return to Ar-Raqqa to check on their houses and belongings, inspect the extent of damage to their property, carry out simple repairs and leave soon after. A few choose to stay. According to local authorities, approximately 12,500 people returned to the Ma’amoun and Tishreen neighborhoods. Approximately 130 families have returned to Hetin neighborhood and an estimated 20 IDP families reportedly returned to the Ammar Ibn Yaser neighborhood in Ar-Raqqa city. According to parties in control, about 2,100 families also returned to Al-Mashlab neighborhood east of Ar-Raqqa city. Qassedin neighborhood was also declared cleared for civilian returns in early December by parties in control.
One of the most pressing challenges facing returnees to Ar-Raqqa city is the presence of scores of IEDs and landmines. Residents will be allowed by parties in control to return on a neighborhood-to-neighborhood basis, as each is declared free of landmines and rubble removed. To date, only Tishreen, Hettin and Ma’amoun neighborhoods in the eastern part of Ar-Raqqa city have been declared cleared by parties in control for civilian returns, while individuals who had previously returned to the Yarmouk neighborhood were permitted to stay. Mine action partners however, continue to warn that areas declared as ‘cleared’ continue to be unsafe for civilians particularly as clearance efforts taking place are limited to roads and critical infrastructure and do not include residential areas which remain highly contaminated. Those who have returned permanently did so due to the lack of any other options, and are therefore considered to be in dire need.
As IDPs return to Ar-Raqqa city, the number of protection incidents from explosive remnants of war (ERWs) has increased. Between 20 October and 13 December, approximately 209 civilians were reportedly killed and many others injured due to presence of explosive hazards. Amongst those killed, four were individuals working for mine action partners. This trend is likely to continue, particularly since mine clearance activities do not include householdlevel clearance.
Humanitarian partners continue robust messaging in IDP sites that Ar-Raqqa city and surrounding areas are not safe for returns, as well as against provision of broad humanitarian assistance in Ar-Raqqa city which may create a pull factor for IDPs. The humanitarian community has developed a joint position paper on the return to Ar-Raqqa city, highlighting the imperative of safety, voluntary, well informed and sustainable return as the criteria guiding any intervention in support to the return of the displaced population.
In addition to the threat posed by unexploded hazards, up to 80 per cent of all buildings in Ar-Raqqa city are severely damaged, and at risk of collapse. Many corpses reportedly remain trapped under the rubble, where they, until adequately buried, pose a risk of spreading communicable diseases amongst the returnee population. Rubble removal work will be conducted in tandem with a medical team.
Returnees to Ar-Raqqa city reportedly face additional challenges amidst a shortage of basic necessities and services. Electricity and waste management services are unavailable, and about 60 per cent of the sewage system is damaged. Water is being pumped for two hours per day, however, 40 per cent of returnees to Ma’amoun neighborhood do not have access to water due to damage in the water supply network and many resort to purchasing water. Some food can be purchased in the reopened stores, and bread is being produced by local bakeries. The single greatest protection concern, however, remains the prevalence of UXOs and landmines despite Tishreen and Ma’amoun neighborhoods having been officially opened for civilian returns by parties in control, following demining efforts.
During the reporting period, between 70 and 80 trauma cases were reported from Ma’amoun alone, with almost all blast injuries occurring in the victims’ homes or in the immediate vicinity of their home.
In the western countryside of Ar-Raqqa governorate, electricity returned to around 13 villages after village-level initiatives succeeded in repairing the damaged networks in these villages. The local authorities carried out repair works of the damaged part of the networks between the different villages, and connected them to the lines that are coming from the Tabqa dam.
In Ath-Thawrah (Tabqa) town and surrounding communities, the legislative council passed the conscription law for men between the age of 18 – 40 years old. The law offers exemption for several cases including men with medical conditions and those who have already had lost a family member while fighting with the SDF, however, NGO workers are not among the exempted category. Similar to Menbij district, the issue of conscription is likely to present a challenge for NGOs operating in the area, as a significant number of NGO workers are between 18 – 40 years of age. The general perception of the law by the locals is mostly negative, which could lead to tensions – similar to those recently seen in Menbij district - between the locals and the authorities.
On 27 November, local authorities issued a circular asking NGOs not to hire any workers outside of the list that is provided by the local labour office. Following discussions between humanitarians and local authorities, the latter agreed to adjust its position and issued another circular with the following five points: i) NGOs are requested to share job advertisements with all councils and publicly on social media, ii) NGOs are requested to clarify the type of requirements that are needed for the advertised position, iii) Priority to be given to locals from the area, iv) NGOs are entitled to accept applicants irrespective of whether they are registered with the labor office, v) NGOs are urged not to hire more than one person from the same family.
In Government of Syria (GoS) controlled areas of Ar-Raqqa governorate, an estimated 1,800 IDP families have reportedly returned the eastern countryside. An estimated 800 families have returned to Ma’adan area in the southern and western banks of the Euphrates River, where some basic services have been restored. In Debsi and Mansura villages, so far about 1,900 families have returned after access to water was reportedly restored. Another 35 IDP families reportedly returned to Sabkha town and the countryside, where humanitarian conditions reportedly remain dire. As there are reportedly no bakeries available in the area, bread is reportedly smuggled from SDF-controlled areas for 300 SY/bundle. People also purchase basic commodities from the SDF-controlled areas. The only available health center in the area is not operational due to lack of equipment and staff. The area also lacks drinkable water in quantities sufficient from all returnees. Although SARC had sent a water purification station to the area on 20 November, drinkable water remains scarce due to a shortage of fuel which means that the pump cannot be operated effectively.
Significant humanitarian gaps remain across the governorate, particularly in strained communities hosting thousands of displaced people. Access to clean water and electricity is severely limited throughout the governorate. The lack of operational health care facilities in remains a critical concern with approximately 92 per cent of the 77 health facilities in Ar-Raqqa governorate are non-functional, with only one health facility fully functional. Many IDPs are in need of adequate shelter, particularly in informal tented settlements, where IDPs are using makeshift shelters or are sleeping in the open.