Border camps overflow as Syrians flee regime assault

Tents housing internally displaced people in Atma camp, near the Syrian-Turkish border in Idlib Governorate on Feb 5, 2016.
Tents housing internally displaced people in Atma camp, near the Syrian-Turkish border in Idlib Governorate on Feb 5, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT (AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS) - Emergency camps along Syria's border with Turkey are overwhelmed by a flood of displaced families, aid workers warned, as the regime kept up an assault against embattled rebels on Tuesday (Feb 9).

In and around the Syrian town of Azaz near the frontier, people are sleeping in the streets, or up to 20 people to a tent, having left their homes with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

"There are no longer enough places for families to sleep," said Ahmad al-Mohammad, a field worker with medical aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

"Many of them in the first days were sleeping in the streets and outdoors without blankets or covers. Most of the families left with just the clothes they were in," he told AFP, adding that the cold and the crowded conditions were causing health problems including diarrhoea.

The United Nations says up to 31,000 people have fled Aleppo city and surrounding areas in recent days, as government forces press an offensive that could encircle the rebel-held part of the city.

Syria's nearly five-year-old conflict has claimed 260,000 lives and displaced half the population.

The continuing violence hit Damascus on Tuesday, with a car bomb killing at least eight people at a police club in the north of the city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor.

Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus said Monday that a "worst case scenario" could see up to 600,000 refugees arrive at the border.

"Our objective for now is to keep this wave of migrants on the other side of Turkey's borders as much as is possible, and to provide them with the necessary services there," Kurtulmus said.

Turkey, which hosts more than 2.5 million refugees from Syria's civil war, faces calls to let in those stuck at the border. The UN called on Turkey on Tuesday to open its borders to thousands of desperate Syrian refugees fleeing Aleppo, in line with its international obligations to protect people fleeing conflict or persecution. William Spindler, spokesman of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the agency understood the concern of Turkish authorities about "possible large influxes" into the country, already hosting more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees.

"Turkey has also allowed a number of vulnerable and wounded people in Turkey. However, many people are not being allowed to cross the border. We are asking Turkey to open its border to all civilians in Syria fleeing danger in need of international protection as they have done," urged Spindler.

But Turkey is also under pressure by European leaders to stop people trying to cross the Mediterranean from Turkey to Europe - a journey not all survive. Huge crowds of Syrians, mainly women and children, have been forced to wait on the other side of Turkey's Oncupinar border crossing, which remained closed Tuesday with only medical emergencies allowed through. A Turkish official said four wounded Syrians had been let through on Monday. MSF said aid groups were distributing warm clothes and mattresses to those stranded on the Syrian side.

"They are trapped," Mohammad said. "They've left their homes and everything they have behind, and they can't get into Turkey."

The UN's humanitarian aid agency OCHA said on Monday that eight informal camps on the Syrian side of the border were at "full capacity".

UN aid chief Stephen O'Brien said he was "gravely concerned" by the mass displacement, noting that about 80 per cent of the tens of thousands of people on the move were believed to be women and children.

"We have reports that civilians have been killed and injured, and that civilian infrastructure, including at least two hospitals, has been hit," he said in a statement. "People urgently require shelter, food and basic household items."

He called on all parties to end targeting civilian infrastructure and allow civilians to move to safer areas. Syrian government forces backed by allied militias and Russian air strikes began a major operation in the northern province of Aleppo last week. They have advanced around much of Aleppo city, virtually encircling the rebel-held eastern part, and are now around 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the Turkish frontier.

"It's the first time since 2013 that the Syrian regime has been this close to the Turkish border in Aleppo province," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Syria's mainstream rebels are now in danger of a crushing defeat after the regime severed their main supply line to Aleppo city. Peace talks in Geneva collapsed last week amid rebel anger over the government offensive. More than 21 suspected Russian air strikes hit targets in several towns northwest of Aleppo city and in the northern countryside on Tuesday morning, the Observatory said. Suspected Russian air strikes also hit parts of Tal Rifaat during the night, according to the monitor, which relies on a network of sources on the ground.

Regime forces and their allies meanwhile were fighting rebels, including jihadists from Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front, in the southwestern countryside of Aleppo province.