200,000 displaced Syrians flee towards Turkey

A Syrian refugee woman carries food while refugees sit near Oncupinar Border gate in Kilis, Turkey, 09 February 2016. [EPA/SEDAT SUNA]

Pressure is mounting on Turkish authorities to open their borders to more than 200,000 refugees from Syria. What prevents the refugees from entering is a 764-km wall Turkey has built along the border, in fear of Kurdish “terrorists”.

After 8 years of the war, over 5.6 million people have fled Syria since 2011 but the conflict has not ended. Many thousands have been trying to flee violence in northwest Syria, the United Nations said on Thursday (23 May), due to an army assault on the last big rebel territory, Idlib. Most of them are waiting at the border of Turkey which is closed.

Eight years into the civil war, President Bashar al-Assad has retaken most of Syria and rebels still fighting have been squeezed into the northwest. Turkey-backed groups hold a strip of territory on the border, and Kurdish-led fighters hold the northeast.

Assad launched his offensive at the end of April in Idlib and parts of adjacent provinces with an intense bombardment, saying rebels had broken a truce.

This week, rebels rolled back some government advances on the main battlefront, retaking the city. Meanwhile, Government forces, supported by the Russian air force, increased strikes with bombs falling on towns and villages across the southern part of the enclave, said a British-based war monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Much of the bombardment has hit a buffer zone around Idlib province and surrounding territories, set up by Russia and Turkey in September under a deal which put off a full-blown assault against the region and its 3 million residents.

The Observatory said 669 people have been killed since the end of April, 209 of them civilians and 38 of them were infants, according to Save the Children. Some 600 air strikes alone hit the rebel enclave on Thursday, killing six civilians, it said.

Since the end of April, there have been 20 attacks on healthcare facilities, one on an ambulance and dozens of schools, the United Nations said, putting 19 facilities that serve at least 200,000 people out of action. Some were hit more than once, it said.

Thousands flee, hundreds die

More than 200,000 people have now fled the violence since the end of April, the United Nations said, and are in urgent need of food and protection.

The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM), which provides assistance to health facilities, said the number of displaced this month had spiked to more than 300,000.

Most of the displaced have sought refugee along the border with Turkey, the UOSSM said, with camps springing up in the shadow of the border wall.

The border wall built by Turkey blocks any chance for them of fleeing the conflict and joining millions of Syrians refugees abroad.

At the border, many of the displaced called on Turkey to open its border to allow people to escape. There is no official statement from the Turkish Government regarding the refugee movement towards Turkey yet.

The possibility of an Idlib offensive has drawn warnings of yet another humanitarian catastrophe, with the United Nations warning that up to 2.5 million people could flee toward the Turkish border in such a scenario.

The US calls for a ceasefire

The United States on Wednesday called for a new ceasefire in Syria after the latest developments.

On the other hand, rebels fighting on the mountainous western edge of the enclave said on Sunday that the army had shelled them with poison gas, leading some to suffer choking symptoms.

However, US Syria envoy James Jeffrey said on Wednesday that Washington did not have confirmation that poison had been used. Rebels said they had not documented the attack because they were under bombardment when it occurred.

Syria’s government denies using chemical weapons.

[Edited by Samuel Stolton]

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