Of all the families on the refugee trail these are the hardest to reach, and the hardest to help – Syria’s internally displaced, people caught in the crossfire within their own country. But aid is getting through, as ShelterBox and its partners deliver with determination.
The world watches hopefully as talks begin in Vienna, bringing to the table the power-brokers who are backing rival sides in Syria’s civil war. The aim is to close the gap between the US and its allies, who support the rebels, and the key foreign allies of the Syrian government, Russia and Iran. This is the first time that Iran has been involved in diplomatic moves towards conflict resolution.
Four years of war in Syria have left a quarter of a million dead, and forced half the country’s population – around 11 million people – from their homes. Hundreds of thousands of them now live under canvas in fast-growing encampments, mostly in the north of the country.
ShelterBox has been working across Syria and its geographical neighbours all this time, helping refugees and displaced families in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraqi Kurdistan and well into Syria itself. Getting aid into this volatile war zone has meant very careful negotiation of so-called ‘aid pipelines’, the discreet movement, distribution and allocation of equipment, and effective in-country partners who can operate cautiously in hostile conditions using their local knowledge.
Among these are London-based Hand in Hand for Syria (HIHS) who were the first to take humanitarian aid into Syria shortly after the conflict began in 2011. HIHS and ShelterBox have supported newly displaced people in northern Syria for over two years, and even managed to deliver school equipment into war-torn Aleppo. A new shipment of aid for a further 1,000 families is now being dispatched.
ShelterBox’s newest partner is the Violet Organisation, a Syrian non-governmental organisation shown in the photos accompanying this press release. 350 large UN specification tents and tarpaulins have been transported to Syria, bound for distribution in camps.
200 UN tents supplied by ShelterBox have also just been distributed by theInternational Organisation for Migration (IOM), mostly to replace those damaged by time and climate over the years of conflict.
Operations Co-ordinator Sam Hewett has recently returned from the Iraq / Syria border territories, where he and ShelterBox colleagues were assessing conditions in many long-established refugee camps, and helping to plan new provision for Iraq’s own internally-displaced population.
Sam says, ‘ShelterBox gives you a global perspective on the refugee crisis – from its origins within Syria, to border territories such as Iraq and Lebanon, and on into Europe where we were recently providing respite for thousands of families arriving on the Greek islands.’
‘At every stage these are stories of great hardship and desperation. The scale of it can overwhelm, so we focus on what is achievable, and where the aid provided by our generous donors can help best. As these photos show, our in-country partners make it possible for ShelterBox to reach those trapped within Syria, whose lives are uncomfortable, uncertain and unsafe.’
Air strikes across Syria have intensified in the last month as the Russians have flexed their air power. The UN says 120,000 people fled from Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib provinces between 5 and 22 October, the places where most Russian bombing has taken place and where Syrian Army ground pushes have occurred. The Russians claim that no civilians have been killed, but they have been using cluster munitions that western air forces shun for their indiscriminate effect.
It is estimated that almost half of Syria’s population has now been displaced, but that six million of them remain within Syria’s borders. Only those who cross borders are classed as refugees, and therefore entitled to the support of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. The internally displaced do not enjoy even that status.
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If you are a refugee who has crossed a border to seek safety, international law offers you some protection. But if you are displaced within your own country, you are often beyond help. On World Humanitarian Day disaster relief charity ShelterBox considers the plight of the world’s ‘IDPs’
The benign-sounding acronym ‘IDP’ is jargon for ‘internally displaced persons’. These people are neither true refugees nor migrants. Because they have not crossed a border – often trapped within their own country by fear, poverty or warfare – under international law they are not the responsibility of the United Nations.
An estimated 33.3 million people have been driven from their homes within their own countries because of violence, according to United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). This figure grew by 8.2 million in 2013 alone, the greatest annual increase ever recorded. Conflict is the trigger for most families to run, but natural disasters – flooding, storms, earthquakes, volcanoes, famine – also force millions from their homes each year. In 2013 almost 22 million people fled forces of nature within their own countries – the equivalent of one third of the UK’s population.
International disaster relief agency ShelterBox provides shelter and vital supplies to families overwhelmed by conflict or catastrophe. Like other aid providers, it finds that IDPs fleeing conflict are among the hardest to reach. A team from ShelterBox plans to return to Iraq in the coming weeks to assess the ever-growing needs, both of refugees and IDPs. It will also consider its ongoing aid provision in Northern Syria, which is an entirely IDP issue.
ShelterBox CEO Alison Wallace says, ‘It is a sad fact of our modern world that tens of millions of people are uprooted from their homes as a result of violence or persecution. But not all these people are refugees or migrants. Those statuses apply only once they have crossed a border. The families and individuals trapped within their country of origin may be on the run for similar reasons, but there are crucial differences in how the international community is able to respond to IDPs.’
Once across an international boundary refugees will normally receive food, shelter and a place of safety. They are protected by international laws and conventions, and the UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations such as ShelterBox work within this legal framework to help refugees restart their lives, maybe even eventually return home. Life may be harsh, but at least it is not without hope.
Alison adds, ‘By contrast, the internally displaced have little protection. Their domestic government may persecute them as enemies of the state, and they can fall prey to rebels and militias. Their fate is in the hands of others – homeless, hopeless, and often persecuted in their home country.’
Under international law there are no specific legal instruments relating to IDPs, and there is no United Nations body dedicated to their needs. Charities can help, using determination, partnership and diplomacy, but their donors may be concerned about intervention in internal conflicts. There has been a long-running, but unresolved, global debate on who should be responsible for IDPs. UNHCR, set up to help refugees, is not specifically mandated to cover the needs of IDPs, although the Commission will occasionally find ways to oversee their protection and shelter. Some countries have also passed laws giving IDPs the right to social, economic and legal help. But these are rare.
ShelterBox has long been active in both Iraq and Syria. The UN estimates the number of people displaced by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq has now exceeded 3 million. Last August the world watched in horror as tens of thousands of Yazidi people were trapped in a siege on barren Mount Sinjar, having been forced from their villages. 300 men, women and children died of exposure before international aid reached them. Thousands were killed or kidnapped.
ShelterBox keeps prepositioned stock in Iraq, and continues working to provide shelter for Iraq’s IDPs in the Kurdistan region. But this is a harsh climate, with daytime temperatures currently of 50 degrees or more, and a punishing winter to follow.
In Syria the IDP drama has been unfolding for more than four years. 7.6 million people are thought to be displaced. There are 147 camps in Northern Syria sheltering only a very small fraction of them, just 40,000 households. ShelterBox has been getting tents and other non-food items into northern Syria since December 2012, using experienced in-country partners to navigate this dangerous territory. As the conflict has persisted over many years tents are now wearing out after long-term exposure to extreme sun and icy winters. These tents were meant to be for temporary emergency shelter, but with no ‘next stage’ solutions in sight, agencies have no option but to replace worn-out equipment. ShelterBox will offer replacement tents where it can, regardless of which agency was the original provider.
SchoolBoxes containing education equipment for makeshift schools have also reached pupils in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and one of the oldest continually inhabited sites in the world. Aleppo is now crumbling as warfare and bombing take their toll.
ShelterBox Operations Coordinator Sam Hewett will be one of the team heading back to Iraq shortly. He says, ‘It is dispiriting to have to replace equipment that was only ever intended for short-term use, but there is no end in sight for these desperate families. We need to make them as comfortable as possible as another harsh winter approaches.’
Alison Wallace adds, ‘IDPs deserve our attention, not only because of their bleak existence, but because their status is so ill-defined in international law. Their need for safety, compassion and practical help is exactly the same as for those who have made it across borders to refugee camps, and if ShelterBox has the means to reach out to them, we feel strongly we should do so.’
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“The scale of need is vast, but I am immensely proud of ShelterBox’s ability to reach a helping hand into this hostile environment. These photos show the difference our aid is making, with the help of our generous supporters and our distributing partner. It is so rewarding to be able to put smiles on these children’s faces.”
The world watches in disbelief as civilian casualties increase daily in the conflict between Israeli and Palestinian militants. ShelterBox last helped in this war-torn area in 2009, and is now on standby to provide aid once circumstances allow.
Gaza City, as can be seen in constant news reports, is one of the most dangerous battle zones in the world at present. ShelterBox is in constant contact with numerous agencies on the ground, including the lead coordinating shelter organisation.
At present humanitarian agencies are finding it difficult to get any aid into the area, given the risk to aid workers and the tight border controls. Among aid priorities is the supply of medicines to Gaza’s over-stretched hospitals, and water supplies to UN shelters. Health services are often overwhelmed, especially following the frequent air and missile strikes. Gaza’s sole power plant has been damaged, so much of the city is without electricity.
ShelterBox Chief Executive Alison Wallace says, ‘It is frustrating, and heart-breaking, to have to watch and wait, but the shelter we offer is not currently appropriate to the needs of families and communities caught in the cross-fire. Our Operations Department is continually monitoring the situation through a number of channels, including multiple sources on the ground.’
‘As soon as a shelter need is identified that we can meet, we are poised to help the many thousands of people who have been displaced by the violence. Everyone is hoping that diplomatic efforts succeed in achieving a lasting cease-fire, so the humanitarian aid community can safely reach these desperate families.’
Over 250,000 people have quit their homes as a result of the fighting according to the UN – ten per cent of the population of Gaza. The branch of the UN that provides relief and human services to Palestinian refugees, the UNRWA, says it has exhausted its absorption capacity in Gaza City and northern Gaza, while overcrowding at its shelters is raising concerns about the outbreak of epidemics.
Palestinian officials now say 1,156 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed in the fighting since 8 July. Some 6,700 have been injured. Israel has lost 53 soldiers and three civilians. There is international outrage at the numbers of children killed or injured. The UN estimates that 185 children have been killed, and over 1,000 injured so far, with 150,000 forced to flee their homes.
ShelterBox Operations Coordinator Phil Duloy says, ‘We have made our partner agencies aware of our willingness to contribute to the response, should what we can offer become appropriate in time.’
Access constraints are also a major factor for aid agencies. There are limitations on the movement of cargo, whether by air or road. ShelterBox is active elsewhere in the Middle East, with partners currently distributing in Iraq to some of the 1.2 million people displaced by the advance of armed opposition groups in the central areas of the country. We are also supplying relief materials to Syrian refugees in Lebanon and internally displaced Syrian people in the north east of the country. ShelterBox last deployed to Gaza in 2009, supplying almost 600 tents to families displaced by conflict, at the time the longest solo deployment in ShelterBox’s history.
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Toby Ash (UK) is an experienced ShelterBox Response Team (SRT) member currently responding to the Syria crisis. Nine months after his first deployment to the region, he has returned to find the need for humanitarian assistance greater than ever.
In June last year, I deployed as an SRT member in the Syrian crisis. Nine months later and I am back in the region. The complex political situation in the country we are in remains, so we are still having to work ‘below the radar’, unable to reveal where we are operating from.
Since my last visit, the security situation inside Syria has worsened dramatically and it is now virtually impossible for foreign aid workers to operate directly inside the country. It has also prevented most journalists from reporting there. So, paradoxically, while Syria is the biggest humanitarian disaster in the world today, there is relatively little media coverage given over to it as there are so few reporters on the ground to tell the grim story.
Working in partnership
Despite the huge challenges, ShelterBox is continuing to respond to the crisis. We are currently working in or through four different countries, assisting either the 2.5 million Syrian refugees who have fled the country or channeling aid to 6.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs) left inside who are often too poor and desperate to be able to escape.
The team on the ground here is currently working with local and international partners to facilitate the distribution inside Syria of a shipment of 400 tents and 2,400 blankets that is arriving imminently from the UK. Our task is to ensure that they are distributed to those most in need as quickly as possible.
High tech solutions
Over the last 18 months we have been working with trusted and proven local and international partners who are enabling us to get our much needed aid into Syria. We are able to utilise their comprehensive networks inside the country to both assess the humanitarian need on an ongoing basis and to ensure that all our aid is distributed equitably and solely on the basis of need.
Yesterday we spent the afternoon looking at extraordinarily detailed satellite imagery and mapping of the hundreds of IDP camps on the other side of the border close to where we are based and were able to identify the ones where ShelterBox aid could be of the most use. Some of these camps are small, containing about 50 families, others contain many thousands, all of whom have fled the fighting with little more than the clothes they are standing in. With the civil war grinding relentlessly on, the number of camps and their size are growing by the day.
‘We have seen many images taken from the camps, and it is clear that the majority of people in them do not have adequate shelter,’ says SRT member Anne Seuren. ‘People are making do with whatever structures that are available to them. Life is even returning to an old Roman settlement that was on the tourist map just a few years ago. If I hadn’t seen the images myself, I would never have believed that this former tourist destination is the only shelter these people can find against the elements.’
Robust distribution plans
We are also working closely with the individuals who are managing these camps and will be responsible for distributing the ShelterBox tents and blankets on our behalf. We are not just sending aid over the border in the hope it will get to those in need – we have put a robust plan in place to ensure that it does. Having already identified the camps in most need of shelter, we will be sent the name and size of the families who will be receiving our assistance. Videos and photographs will also be taken so we have a clear record of who received what, where they are, and when they received it. Where ShelterBox tents are grouped together in large numbers, we will even be able to use satellite imagery to check their location and ongoing use.
The Syrian crisis is complex and bloody with no end in sight. But ShelterBox is able to make a real difference on the ground. We have developed strong partnerships with those able to operate on our behalf in the country, and through careful distribution management and the increasing use of technology, we are able to effectively identify and reach the most desperate.
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