On January 18th, Iraq and northwestern regions of Syria were hit with an unexpected snow storm. The surprise storm particularly affected the internally displaced population living in camps in sub-districts such as Sharan, Sheikh Al Hadid, Maabatli, and Raju. Temperatures fell as low as -15ºC in Syria, and more than a foot of snowfall caused road closures, isolating camp residents from receiving urgent assistance.
Syria has the highest number of internally displaced people in the world, with over two-thirds of the population having fled, or forcibly removed because of the Syrian Civil War. These communities often live in poor conditions and lack necessary humanitarian aid.
In a press release, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated that “362 tents housing displaced people were affected by the storm in rebel-held Northwest Syria”. Hundreds of tents collapsed while the residents were still inside. On January 22, the Syrian Civil Defense Organization, the White Helmets, stated that around 2,250 families had experienced different levels of damage. Some camps were affected so intensely by the storm that they had to be entirely evacuated, like The Abraz camp in Maabatli.
Medical care, fuel, and heat are already limited in the camps under normal conditions. The intense blizzard is exacerbating these problems. Below freezing temperatures are threatening vulnerable populations within the camps, such as the elderly, chronically ill people, young children, and pregnant women. Medical professionals in the region are also noticing an uptick in the amount of children experiencing respiratory illnesses as a result of the low temperatures and heavy snowfall. One child reportedly died on January 23rd, and their mother was also rushed to the intensive care unit.
In response to the crisis, the World Health Organization and the Health Cluster have stated that they will step up and continue to provide additional support in the region. The United Nations had helped 260,000 internally displaced people as of January 20th, and voiced that it would attempt to reach an additional 848,000 people after the roads were cleared.
In addition to the commitment made by the World Health Organization, the Health Cluster, and the United Nations, other local initiatives have been undertaken by the White Helmets and residents of neighboring villages. The White Helmets transported hundreds of camp residents to short-term shelters, organized the replacement of ruined tents, and also distributed winter clothing to children. Other smaller local campaigns were also created by locals hoping to help the internally displaced communities. The nonprofit Molham Volunteering Team is working to find individuals and families trapped in fallen tents. The group said they have been able to support 2,000 families since the start of the blizzard.