Syrian Arab Republic: Humanitarian situation update in Afrin District and for IDPs in surrounding communities (as of 15 June 2018)
Between 20 January and 18 March, Turkish Armed Forces and allied Free Syrian Army groups launched the “Olive Branch” military operation against Syrian Democratic Forces in Afrin district.
As of the end of May, 136,000 individuals are estimated to remain in Afrin district; whereas 134,000 individuals remain displaced in the Tall Refaat sub-district, Nabul and Zahraa towns and surrounding communities.
Some limited return movements to Afrin district took place between 21 and 26 May. Unverifiable information indicates that between 3,000 to 5,000 individuals may have returned using the Tanab – Ibbin crossing. For unknown reasons, the crossing was closed on 26 May which stopped return movement.
A multi-sectoral rapid needs assessment was carried out in Afrin district between 3 and 8 May 2018. The sectoral findings of the assessment show that the humanitarian situation in the district is worse than what was initially expected. Many service providers were displaced to areas outside of Afrin during the hostilities. The explosive remnants of war contamination is an issue of concern to both civilians and humanitarians. Access to services and markets is limited.
The Afrin assessment coverage map (180 out of 220 communities assessed) is shown below.
On 20 January, the Turkish Armed Forces and allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups launched the “Olive Branch” military operation against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Afrin district. Following almost two months of hostilities, the majority of Afrin district came under the control of the Turkish Armed Forces and allied FSA groups. In the days prior to the takeover of Afrin town by the Turkish Armed Forces and allied FSA groups, the SDF-affiliated authorities reportedly allowed civilians to move out of Afrin district.
Current estimates indicate that 134,000 IDPs remain displaced outside of the district in the Tall Refaat – Nabul area. Humanitarian organizations registered some 53,000 IDPs in Tall Refaat and surrounding communities. Some 33,500 people are estimated to reside in the Fafin area, where humanitarian partners registered 9,000 people in four IDP camps and nearby farms, and it is estimated that some 24,500 people were displaced to the seven villages in the Fafin areas, where no registration has taken place to date. Some 30,000 people are estimated to be in Nabul and Zahraa towns, while 15,500 IDPs reached Aleppo city in the early phase of displacement. Finally, some 2,000 IDPs moved to Menbij and north-east Syria. Presently, freedom of movement of these people displaced outside of Afrin district remains restricted, including for them to move to Aleppo city – despite some IDPs having family links and properties there. High level advocacy with the Government of Syria continues to lobby for their freedom of movement.
The protection situation for the displaced population in Nabul and Zahraa towns, Tall Refaat and surrounding rural areas remains dire. Before and after leaving Afrin, families had faced multiple displacements due to lack of suitable accommodation or unaffordable rental costs. Such conditions continue to impact their security and resilience and leads to the loss of economic and financial assets. The depletion of resources, the precarious accommodation situation and the fear of recruitment increase anxiety amongst the IDP population. The displaced population communicated frustrations on the lack of information about the situation in Afrin district, on the duration of stay in the current location, and on the perceived likelihood of involuntary relocation to other areas. The fear of evacuation from temporary accommodation, particularly for IDPs currently living in schools, is a push factor for returns to Afrin district.
The provision of civil status documentation, largely left behind or lost during the flight, and the registration of vital events occurring during displacement, are amongst the major gaps identified. Lack of infrastructure in areas of displacement is an obstacle to implement such services, while IDP access to the existing civil registries in Afrin is unfeasible following the change in control in Afrin district. Protection actors are trying to address this gap through the mobilization of groups of national lawyers finally authorized to conduct legal awareness and interventions in Tall Refaat and surrounding areas, where civil registries are not functional. Mobile registration efforts remain difficult, due to lack of stable connections, access and coordination amongst the Government of Syria-affiliated institutions.
The United Nations continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the displaced population of Afrin in Tall Refaat and surrounding areas. Despite the increase in the presence of humanitarian partners in these areas, assistance and services remain insufficient, particularly for people in rural areas and in the IDP sites of Tall Refaat, Fafin and Wahshiyeh. Facilities in IDP sites are sub-standard and inadequately arranged for the dignity and the safety of women and children.
While the current situation in Afrin district poses limitations in terms of obtaining accurate population figures, data collected by a humanitarian organization in April 2018, indicated the presence of over 136,000 individuals across the district. The largest population figures were reported in Afrin town, where over 40,000 individuals were residing. Since the takeover of Afrin district by the “Olive Branch” forces in March 2018, attempts by people who displaced to return to the district have been ongoing. IDPs wishing to return have faced several challenges. Restrictions imposed by the parties to the conflict on movement continue. Many choosing to try to return choose to use unofficial means, with the risk of exploitation, injury or death by the explosive remnants of war along the way. Some reported their view that the return process is risky once inside Afrin district due to the fear of retaliation of attributed political profile or opinion.
The lack of a tracking mechanism of returns makes it challenging to obtain accurate figures on returnees. Unverified information indicates that between 3,000 to 5,000 individuals returned to Afrin district through the Tanab – Ibbin crossing, between 21 and 26 May. For unknown reasons, the crossing was closed on 26 May, and reports indicated that the return movement stopped. An estimated 200 people were stranded between the crossing for several days following its closure, before being allowed to return to Tall Refaat sub-district, reports indicated.
Reports indicate that displaced people from East Ghouta, southern Damascus, and other locations, where local agreements resulted in the evacuation of large numbers of people, moved to Afrin district after arrival in northern Syria. A number of these IDPs are residing in camps established by the authorities; while some IDPs occupy empty houses. It is unknown if this occupation is with the permission of the original owner.
In the wake of the takeover of most of Afrin district by Turkish Armed Forces and allied FSA groups in March 2018, reports emerged indicating the involvement of allied FSA group members in acts of looting and arbitrary arrests. While anecdotal information indicates a reduction in the occurrence of such incidents, it is deeply concerning that such incidents continue to be reported. On 24 May, the Syrian Islamic Council – a group of Syrian religious scholars – issued a statement which affirmed the prohibition of looting of property of civilians in Afrin district, irrespective of the pretexts used to justify such actions. The statement called on the leaders of the battalions to maintain security in the areas under their control, and respond to the violations committed by fighters. The statement demanded the return of stolen property to their rightful owners.
At present, the humanitarian access situation in Afrin district continues to improve. While Damascus-based UN agencies and their partners have not been granted the permission to deliver assistance to Afrin district by the Government of Syria, at least 10 cross-border humanitarian organizations, some of whom are partners of UN agencies based in Turkey, continue to implement humanitarian activities. The Government of Turkey continues to classify Afrin district as an area of active military operations, cross-border humanitarian organizations use a deconfliction mechanism to coordinate the movement of their staff and humanitarian shipments. This mechanism serves to ensure that the armed actors on the ground are aware of the movement of humanitarians, which enhances the safety of staff and commodities.
To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.