As the Middle East region is hit by three cold fronts this week and temperatures drop below zero degrees Celsius, thousands of displaced Syrians will be fighting to stay warm, the IRC warns.

In northwest Syria, 2.8 million people remain displaced by conflict, some of whom have had to flee their homes up to 25 times.1.7 million of the displaced, 80 percent of which are women and children, live in overcrowded informal camps and unfinished buildings. As temperatures are set to reach minus five degrees Celsius at night this week, frost, heavy rain and snowfall threatens to exacerbate the suffering of hundreds of thousands of those staying in makeshift tents and poor housing conditions. At the same time, ongoing conflict is continuing to uproot lives and livelihoods, hinder the response, and together with the COVID-19 pandemic, contributing to a devastating protection crisis in northwest Syria. 

As the humanitarian response struggles to scale up to meet the heightened levels of need that come with harsh winter conditions, these challenges will only heighten. A study in October last year showed that 61% of the cement shelters across 680 displacement camps in Idleb and Aleppo had no roof and were only covered with sheets to protect from the elements. 85% of caravans needed waterproof insulation as they had already started leaking. Additionally, more than 91,000 tents lacked waterproof insulation, 42,000 of which had been damaged and needed replacement. In another study covering last year and addressing all camps in the northwest, 157 fire incidents had been recorded and 302 tents were damaged as a result. 611 camps had been affected by natural disasters, destroying over 3,000 tents and impacting more than 248,000 people.

Mohannad*, 24, who has been displaced with his wife and two children to a camp in northwest Syria, said:

“Due to the snowstorm, the tent my family and I stayed in was completely destroyed and our possessions have been damaged. We lack all necessities of life from a proper shelter to heating sources and food. It is freezing cold and we need urgent assistance.”

The economic crisis, in part driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, has led to a depreciation of the Syrian Pound and steep drop in the exchange rate which are compounding the hardships of Syrians in the northern parts of the country, making it extremely difficult for them to purchase basic items such as logs and fuel to keep warm. The Syrian Pound reached an estimated 3,500 SYP/USD in the last few months of 2021 and prices of basic commodities have increased dramatically. For example, bread prices have increased 32% at the end of December 2021 in comparison with June of the same year. Half of the population has lost one or more sources of income due to the economic downturn and the pandemic. The number of Syrians who are dependent on food assistance to survive has doubled between 2020 and 2021 to 1.3 million people.

Tanya Evans, the IRC’s Country Director in Syria, said:

“Displaced Syrians are having to decide whether to spend what is left of their money on keeping their families warm or buying food. Every winter, their tents are prone to being damaged or torn by heavy winds, rain, and snow. Within the past 24 hours, we have received reports of at least 30 informal camps impacted by the current storm. Syrians are burning literally anything they can find to keep fires going and we are extremely concerned that they are being subjected to fumes that could lead to suffocation while sleeping or fires burning their tent.” 

“As we are coming up to the 11-year-mark of unrelentless conflict and suffering in Syria, we need to ensure access for humanitarian workers to provide aid, and that Syrians have all they need to survive the harsh weather conditions. Every winter we hear tragic stories of people, adults and children, freezing to death or dying due to their tents catching fire or suffocating from the fumes that are released from gas heaters.”

With many threats encircling the region from the ongoing hostilities to fears of the new Omicron variant surfacing and the economy falling apart, the IRC is calling on the international community to ensure funding for winter assistance to provide appropriate shelters, safe heating sources and basic food items is sustained and to enable an urgently scaled up cross-border response to cover the needs of vulnerable communities and prevent loss of life. The COVID response should also be adequately funded and scaled up to ensure more testing kits, pharmaceutical equipment including medicines, and oxygen supplies, and vaccinations are provided.

Finally, in line with the Secretary-General's call for a global cessation of hostilities to enable effective COVID-19 health interventions, all parties to conflict in the northwest must urgently uphold their commitments to a ceasefire and ensure humanitarians and medical personnel are able to respond to the humanitarian crisis in a safe, effective and timely manner.


Notes to editors

The IRC in northwest Syria 

In 2020, the IRC and its partners reached over 318,000 patients through 17 health facilities: 2 hospitals – including one COVID-19 isolation hospital, 2 mobile clinics, 12 primary health care centers and one mental health center. Additionally, we have a fleet of 10 ambulances, 5 of which are dedicated to the COVID-19 response, transporting suspected cases to testing facilities and then transferring them for treatment. In addition to our ambulances, our response to the pandemic includes implementing infection, prevention and control measures across all IRC supported health facilities; training staff in how to protect themselves and their patients from the virus; and continuing to raise awareness of the pandemic in the communities where we and our partners operate. The IRC also provides specialist care to vulnerable women and girls, pregnant women, and the elderly; provides psychosocial support to help children and their families overcome emotional distress; and helps thousands of Syrians gain an income through emergency cash distributions, business grants, and vocational training. With regard to protection, the IRC conducts protection monitoring regularly producing a protection needs-based report that is circulated to other actions and stakeholders to make sure coordination and work are enhanced towards the same client-based needs. As for education, the IRC implements the Ahlan Simsim program for children and caregivers and has reached 105,012 people as of the end of November 2021, representing the highest reach among Ahlan Simsim countries and exceeding the targeted number (85,387) for the whole 2021.