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A Syrian child at a displacement camp in the village of al-Ghadfa in southeast Idlib. Photo: NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images
War in Syria

Syria’s next humanitarian disaster: Idlib

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Photo: NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images

Fighting in Idlib may spark the worst humanitarian crisis the world has seen in Syria since the start of the country’s eight-year conflict. Here’s what you need to know.

Where is Idlib?

Idlib is located in northwestern Syria and is the last major area controlled by the opposition. The province is home to nearly three million civilians, including one million children.

What is happening in Idlib?

There are ongoing efforts by the Syrian government and its allies to take control of the province. As of May 28, almost 270,000 people have fled their homes from increased shelling and airstrikes in northern Hama and southern Idlib since the start of the month.

"The surge in aerial attacks is the worst violence seen in the area over the past 18 months," said the IRC's Middle East advocacy director Misty Buswell. 

What is the humanitarian situation in Idlib?

Around 1.7 million people in Idlib have been displaced by earlier waves of fighting in Syria, with nearly 430,000 people living in poor conditions in tented settlements that often lack clean water or toilets.

“Everything is expensive, bread, electricity, rent, everything. if you don’t have money to buy you will die of hunger,” said Um Ragheb, 35, who is struggling to raise her five children by herself in the village of Deir Hassan. She fled from her home in Baba Amar, in the city of Homs four years ago and is unable to work because of a hand injury. "We left [all] of our things at Homs, [but] a few clothes for the kids,” she adds.

Idlib is home to nearly three million civilians, including one million children.

The health situation in Idlib is already particularly dire with a shortage of medical supplies. Many medical facilities have been attacked in the past. At least 22 health facilities have been attacked since April 28, including two supported by the IRC. These hospitals provided consultations and 700 operations each month.

The increased bombardment has disrupted the IRC’s operations and forced staff to evacuate their families. An IRC contractor’s home in central Idlib was shelled, killing his daughter-in-law.

Ongoing insecurity limits people’s access to health services and other essential aid. According to the United Nations, some 600,000 people in the affected areas have had their access to health, nutrition and protection services affected, and shelling and airstrikes have hit schools, markets and displacement camps.

The U.N. has warned that as many as 700,000 people may flee to escape bombardment or military advances in Idlib. The majority have moved close to the Turkish border.

“The IRC and its partners are doing all they can to help the most desperately in need in Idlib, but this is also a terrifying time for our staff who worry for the safety of their own families," said Buswell. "The international community needs to act now to do everything in its power to pressure all sides to recommit to an immediate ceasefire and protect civilians, and to bring parties to the conflict back to the Geneva peace process.”

What is happening to Syrian children in Idlib?

An IRC assessment in Harim, Idlib and Jisr-Ash-Shugar found that children are showing signs of severe distress after being displaced an average of five times since the conflict began.

One woman told the IRC during the assessment: "My son is three-and-a-half years old. After the bombardments, he started having nightmares and began wetting his bed. He tells me that he is seeing dead bodies.”

70-year-old Mariam lives in Idlib where she sells sweets and biscuits.

70-year-old Mariam lives in Idlib where she sells sweets and biscuits. Mariam frequently visits an IRC-supported clinic near her home. "My husband died a long time ago. Now I can only depend on myself. I can’t go very far for treatment. Having a clinic close by makes my life easier. Before, I had travel over 90 kilometers (55 miles) to see a doctor, which was very stressful for me".

Photo: Abdullah Hammam/IRC

Over half of parents and guardians reported that children were showing signs of psychosocial distress, such as unusual crying and screaming, since this most recent displacement. More than a third of parents and guardians reported children were having nightmares or not able to sleep, and 40 percent reported children showed signs of sadness.

“Being uprooted is traumatic for anyone but for a child it can have long lasting repercussions,” said Buswell. “Parents that IRC teams spoke to reported a range of alarming behavior changes since they were most recently displaced, including nightmares, children isolating themselves and behaving more aggressively. These are signs of severe distress that, without support, children may carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

How is the IRC responding?

The IRC has been working in Idlib since 2012. The IRC and local organizations support nine health facilities as well as three mobile health clinics in Idlib, reaching over 80,000 patients each month. We will provide emergency cash of up to $120 to over 1,400 families in northern Idlib to help them pay for food and other essentials, and provide critical aid to vulnerable women and girls, the elderly, pregnant and others who need special care.

The IRC runs a safe space for children to learn and play as well as receive psychosocial support. With our partners, we recently distributed 26,362 educational kits with games, books and word cards for children to help them cope with their current situation.

In addition, the IRC has two centers in northern Idlib where we have helped thousands of Syrians build skills for future employment and small businesses through apprenticeships, business start-up grants and life skills and vocational training.

What can I do to help Syrians in Idlib?

Donate Now. Help the IRC provide vital aid to families in Syria, and support our work around the world.

Learn more ways on how to help Syrian refugees in the U.S. and other families uprooted by conflict.

The IRC in Syria

Last year, the International Rescue Committee provided lifesaving support across Syria to over 1.1 million people—almost half of them children—who are struggling to survive a brutal war now in its eighth year. Learn more about our work.