U.N. humanitarian aid workers have begun making plans for dealing with an enormous new flow of refugees in Syria and Iraq, officials here say.
The preparations anticipate two likely military actions that aid workers fear will send hundreds of thousands of people fleeing new fighting.
The first involves a possible push by the Islamic State to take control of Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, from rival rebel groups and the Syrian military. Such a push, U.N. officials say, could send another 500,000 people fleeing.
The other foresees an Iraqi military offensive to wrest the city of Mosul from the Islamic State. Such an offensive would likely push 1.5 million people to seek safety elsewhere.
With Syria now entering its fifth years of violence, international aid agencies see no end in sight for one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II. More than 200,000 people have been killed and 1 million wounded in Syria, officials estimate.
Hanaa Singer, the representative in Syria of UNICEF, the U.N.’s children welfare agency, estimates that 14 million children across the region “are suffering from the escalating violence sweeping Syria and much of Iraq.” More than 5 million of those are Syrian children, many of whom have been forced to flee their homes multiple times. An estimated 2.6 million children are out of school, and more than 50,000 teachers have been killed or they’ve fled the country.
Millions of people remain outside the reach of U.N. aid agencies, including an estimated 2.7 million who live in areas controlled by the Islamic State.
The Syrian people “have endured hell on earth,” said Richard Brennan, director of the World Health Organization’s emergency risk and humanitarian response.
The heads of six U.N. humanitarian agencies, including UNICEF, WHO, the World Food Program (WFP) and the refugee agency UNHCR in a joint statement last week urged world leaders “to put aside their differences and use their influence to bring about meaningful change in Syria.”
Singer said the world community must even consider negotiating with the Islamic State to secure humanitarian access to civilians in need of assistance in areas the group control. Such access is “not only the responsibility of the humanitarian agency, this is a political responsibility . . . .to put pressure and start a dialogue with IS,” she said. “We continuously try to have access through different partners.”
She noted that despite obstacles, UNICEF and WHO had reached 2.9 million children in a recent polio vaccination program and 840,000 children with measles vaccine, some of whom were in Islamic State-controlled areas
“Other state parties and the political arm of the U.N. should try to negotiate with IS to secure humanitarian access, at least to protect children,” she said.
U.N. officials estimate that 4.8 million Syrians live in hard to reach areas, including those residing in Islamic State areas, and that 212,000 are trapped in towns under siege by Syrian government forces or rebel groups.
Daily violence that children suffer is horrifying, Singer said, describingd a chilling image in Raqqa “of a group of children, assembled in a public square for a screening, not of cartoons or action movies, but of videos showing – in full, excruciating detail – the execution of human beings.”
“These are children,” she said.
The WHO’s Brennan said many of the 58 local private groups that the agency works with in Syria “don’t have access to IS-controlled areas.”
He said only three had access to Deir el Zour, an Islamic State-controlled city in the country’s southeast, and only one had access to Raqqa, the Syrian city that is the Islamic State’s de facto capital. He said the health system in both areas “is being decimated” but that U.N. agencies have been unable to respond.
That’s why the U.N. is intent on preparing for the likely impact of military developments in Aleppo and Mosul.
Elizabeth Byrs, WFP spokesperson, said the agency was ready with food stocks “in many warehouses” while Brennan said his agency have stockpiled large amounts of drugs and medical supplies.