Rapidly escalating conflict in northwest Syria has created healthcare “mayhem”, amid reports of displaced people moving closer to the Turkish border in search of shelter, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday, as the UN Secretary-General appealed for all warring parties to "step back from the edge of further escalation."
The UN chief António Guterres, described the current displacement crisis in and around Idlib, and the escalation in fighting between Turkish and Russian-backed Syrian forces, as “one of the most alarming moments” of the nearly-decade long war.
“Without urgent action, the risk of even greater escalation grows by the hour. And as always, civilians are paying the gravest price”, he told reporters at UN Headquarters in New York.
“Even camps and other sites where displaced families have sought shelter have been struck by shelling.”
He said that the most pressing need was an immediate ceasefire “before the situation gets entirely out of control.”
Speaking just hours before the UN Security Council is due to meet in emergency session to discuss the escalation in fighting in Syria, the UN chief said that “now it’s time to give a chance for diplomacy to work, and it’s essential that fighting stops.”
'Mayhem' on the ground
Briefing the press in Geneva earlier in the day, WHO Spokesperson Christian Lindmeier said that health workers were describing "mayhem in their health facilities."
"As of today, 84 health facilities have been forced to suspend operations since 1 December 2019," -- @WHO— UN Geneva (@UNGeneva) February 28, 2020
"We now have 950,000 displacements going in absolutely horrifying conditions. People have nothing and they have no place to go," -- @UNOCHA #Idlib #Syria pic.twitter.com/B012LyA32G
Speaking in Geneva, he explained that nearly 170,000 “newly displaced people are sleeping out in the open” in Idlib - the last opposition-held area of Syria that is the target of a Government-led military campaign – with 100,000 children exposed to temperatures close to freezing.
The crisis is the worst that people in northwest Syria have experienced since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, UN humanitarians maintain.
Nearly a million displaced in three months
Since 1 December, it is estimated that that nearly a million people have been displaced in the embattled region. Conditions are “horrifying”, said Jens Laerke, Spokesperson for the Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“We now have 950,000 displacements going in absolutely horrifying conditions. People have nothing and they have no place to go”, he told journalists. “This is an increase upon an increase upon an increase, and it is really tragic to see what is going on.”
Since 1 December, 11 healthcare facilities have been attacked, causing 10 deaths and 37 injuries, according to WHO.
Sharp rise in trauma cases
The UN agency also warned that the displacement crisis has created huge healthcare needs in some medical centres and hospitals but left other facilities deserted, amid a “sharp rise in trauma cases”.
“As of today, 84 health facilities have been forced to suspend operations since 1 December last year, out of those 84, 31 have been able to relocate and provide services where people have sought refuge from bombardments”, Mr. Lindmeier said.
As part of a major and ongoing humanitarian operation, WHO sent 55 tonnes of medicine and medical supplies from Turkey into Idlib governorate and parts of Aleppo on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Using the border crossings of Bab al Hawa and Bab al Sama, the UN agency transported equipment including 3,200 trauma and surgical treatments.
These are being distributed to WHO partners in more than 150 facilities - approximately half of functioning health facilities in the northwest.
Turkish troop death reports
Amid reports that the Turkish authorities had begun allowing Syrian civilians to cross into Turkey after dozens of Turkish soldiers were reportedly killed in an attack linked to Syrian Government forces, OCHA said that cross-border aid deliveries would proceed.
“We have no official…communication from the Turkish Government about any change as of now”, Mr. Laerke said. “So, the cross-border operation does continue, and I could add that in the first two months of this year we have had more than 2,000 trucks crossing that border and that operation continues.”