SYRIANS of all backgrounds are entering what could be the most taxing summer since the start of the war, nine years ago.
Several million refugees and displaced people face the spread of the Covid-19 virus with scant basic resources. At the same time, most of the Syrians in government-controlled areas are struggling to get by as the currency collapses and basic items slip out of reach. The imposition last week of more United States sanctions on Syria will put the regime under further strain, leaving it even less able to address people’s needs.
Some 5.5 million Syrians have fled the country; the majority are now in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. All three countries are under financial stress. A further 6.6 million people have been uprooted from their homes inside Syria. The spread of the Covid-19 virus through refugee communities has significantly increased human suffering.
“The number of vulnerable refugees who lack the basic resources to survive in exile has dramatically surged as a result of the public-health emergency,” a spokesman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, Andrej Mahecic, said. In the three months since the lockdown in the region began, the UN body has identified 200,000 more refugees as being vulnerable and needing emergency assistance.
UNHCR also reports signs of distress among vulnerable individuals who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic. “We have evidence”, Mr Mahecic said, “of people trying to skip meals in order to spread out the food so it can last longer. They may skip taking medication — anything that is considered right now something where they can cut cost.”
The UN refugee body is appealing for more financial support. In Jordan, for example, only 17,000 of the 49,000 families newly identified as being in need have received help, because “UNHCR is lacking the funds to extend its programmes.”
The refugee statistics camouflage the suffering of individuals. The Christian aid organisation World Vision highlights the experience of Ahlam, one of its aid workers, in Idlib, in north-west Syria, where heavy fighting is continuing. “I have witnessed a lot of suffering in Idlib, but the last few months have been the worst yet. People have fled the military bombardment in massive numbers, sometimes tens of thousands in a day.”
Recently, she came across a couple with four exhausted and frightened small children crammed on to a motorcycle and side car. The mother was heavily pregnant, and had gone into contractions while fleeing a bombardment. They had no possessions, and nowhere to go.
“We helped them find a place in a shared room with another family, and the mother gave birth there,” Ahlam said. “Three days later, they had to move again, and the area they moved to was heavily bombed; so they fled once again.”
Ahlam is saddened that “many of the children I meet know no other reality than this conflict and fear. An entire generation has been damaged, and I don’t know if this can be repaired.”