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Syria's Refugees Face a Deadly Winter

Two children have already died from the cold in refugee camps.

If there's anything the Syrian people haven't suffered since the civil war started tearing their country apart, it's a lack of media coverage. However, a new report released by the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner this week has revealed that the conflict has so far claimed 60,000 casualties, a third more than previous estimates of the death-toll. Of those not injured in affected regions, it's thought that more than four million are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance and two million are now displaced within Syria, having fled their homes to escape the ongoing bloodshed. It's worse than we all thought, basically, and nothing seems to be getting better.


Displaced Syrians fleeing the violence are now living in schools and sheltering within communities throughout the country, but thousands live in makeshift camps, like the Bab al-Salam transit camp in Azaz, just inside the Syrian border, which is now home to several thousand internally displaced people (IDPs). Chaotic and dirty, with just one Turkish NGO struggling to manage operations at the camp, residents are suffering. Temperatures plunge to below freezing every night, and two children have died from the cold and related health complications in recent weeks.

The camp is a collection of small, domed tents erected onto concrete with no floors or heating, meaning the entire families living in them are still having to put up with essentially living in a mud bath after it rained non-stop for days a couple of weeks ago. The rising casualty count means the population of the camp is growing, too; recent airstrikes in Azaz, Al-Bab and Mareaa have seen nearly 7,500 people crowd into the area.

The only organisation with a visible presence in the camp is the Turkish-based NGO, Yasani Yardim Vakfi, known as IHH. Neither the UN nor any other international NGOs are here. A spokesman for IHH said: “There are some local NGOs from various cities in Turkey sending relief items to Syria with trucks, and some international NGOs from Gulf States and Arabic countries working for help.”

Even members of the UN are baffled by their organisation's own inaction to provide help inside the country. The UNHR Commissioner Navi Pillay said: “The failure of the international community, in particular the Security Council, to take concrete actions to stop the blood-letting shames us all. We have been repeatedly asked: ‘Where is the international community? Why aren’t you acting to stop this slaughter?’ We have no satisfactory answer to those questions. Collectively, we have fiddled at the edges while Syria burns.”


Relief for the civilians need of help within Syria falls on the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to coordinate. They acknowledged via a spokesperson that: “Internally displaced people are particularly vulnerable, because they do not have sufficient clothes and bedding for the cold winter.” But they are struggling to provide aid amidst the violence: “Humanitarian access continues to be hampered by fighting, insecurity, checkpoints, roadblocks and road closures. In recent weeks, there has been an increase in security incidents affecting aid workers and convoys, resulting in loss of humanitarian supplies and damage to vehicles.” Since October, ten World Food Programme trucks have been stolen or confiscated by armed groups.

These difficulties are certainly evident on the ground. I'm told by an aid worker in Kilis that the camp used to give out three meals a day, but this has been reduced. An IHH spokesman says: “[they] are given two meals per day – breakfast and dinner. Hot and fresh meals are prepared and distributed by the IHH team."

Anan, 25, and her friend nurse a sick child. He's vomiting and writhing in pain. Other children explain that the food has made him sick, rifling through the child's vomit to show me that it's the chickpeas that are to blame.

The UN High Commission for Refugees made a request for over a billion dollars in aid for Syrian refugees last month, but they operate solely with those who’ve made it across the border. They currently estimate that over 1.1 million Syrians will registered as refugees in neighbouring countries by June this year.


Life as a refugee is – shockingly – not a lot of fun. Turkey alone is home to nearly 150,000 refugees who live in 14 camps throughout the south of the country. At the Kilis camp, 12,000 people live in a village made of shipping containers right next to the border. Whole families are crowded into a small container each and have no freedom of movement within Turkey. But they have three meals a day, water and electricity, so when compared to the Syrian camp less than two miles down the road, it seems like the absolute utopian suburban dream.

At Bab al-Salam, residents fill sacks with sand to hold the sides of their tents down and keep them dry. Some sit in mud up to half a foot deep. An older man from Azaz who wouldn't give his name points to the mud and explains, "My tent is there. When it rains, the water rises – it is no good here." He pulls up his thobe to show me the Wellington boots he has taken to wearing underneath.

Yasir Mohammed, a camp operations worker from IHH, says activities for the children are a big problem. “They need toys; football, Barbie and a television to watch Tom and Jerry,” he says, then continuing to explain the camp's lack of basic necessities: “There is a problem with electricity. It's cold, we need blankets. The children need jackets, pants and shoes.”

Cottage industries have popped up throughout the camp to meet the residents' basic needs: small stalls selling cookies, sweets and cigarettes are dotted around. A group of women dry stale bread in the sun and children tear up small branches they find as kindling for the stoves some residents are cooking on.


Abdul, 12, bounds over to talk – he's a friendly and precocious young man who speaks fluent English and has been at the camp for two months since his family fled the shelling in Mareaa. He says, "Life here is very difficult. We have no water, no electricity, no food and it's very cold." Despite this, he says his family are not going to go to Turkey: "We will stay here, we want to go home.”

Despite some fiery rhetoric from some quarters of the UN, there’s no sign of the international community on the ground in Bab al-Salam. With no sign of intervention or an end to the violence – and several more months of cold weather looming – the future for Syria's displaced residents does not look bright.

Follow Emma on Twitter: @ejbeals 

More from Syria:

I Left My Family for the Free Syrian Army

Not All Syrians Side with the Rebels

The VICE Guide to Syria

Watch - Ground Zero: Syria