In the Al-Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria, it has been reported by the World Health Organization (WHO) that at least 29 children, including newborns, have died over the past two months, primarily due to hypothermia. Approximately 23,000 people have arrived in this camp, located in the Al-Hasakeh province in Syria, over the span of just eight weeks. The size of this camp, which was once mostly composed of Iraqi refugees, has tripled to a population of nearly 33,000. Syrian women and children fleeing the fighting between U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and remaining ISIS militants represent most of the new camp residents.
Elizabeth Hoff, WHO’s representative in Syria, stated: “The situation in Al-Hol camp is heartbreaking. Children are dying from hypothermia as their families flee to safety.” She added that “thousands of new arrivals have been forced to spend several nights in the camp’s open-air reception and screening areas, without tents, blankets or heating.” Furthermore, she noted that “humanitarian access to the camp and surrounding roads is hampered by bureaucratic obstacles and security constraints… We are scaling up our efforts in Al Hol, but we need faster approvals to allow us [to] deliver supplies, and we need guaranteed access to both the camp and the roads leading to it.”
The unfortunate deaths of these children reveal the extent of the perils that refugees face on their journeys, as well as the dangers they encounter at their destinations. The accumulated tolls of long and arduous journeys during harsh weather conditions is worsened by camps that are themselves entirely unprepared to adequately address the needs of refugees. Such camps can, in fact, further worsen their health. It is important to use such failures as opportunities to take a closer look into refugee camp conditions around the world and use additional funding and awareness to develop camp systems that can meet the basic needs of refugees and provide important services for them. Being in a volatile region, with ever-evolving battles occurring on the ground, makes it significantly more challenging to revamp Al-Hol, but at the minimum what has happened here must be avoided.
Since ISIS captured many parts of Syria in 2014, the displacement of Syrians has been widespread. As Kurdish and Arab forces are stating that their fight is reaching its last days, there has been a surge in refugee arrivals in the Al-Hol camp. Such large numbers of arrivals in a short period of time has posed major challenges to the camp, including arrivals having to spend days in unheated reception and screening areas following lengthy journeys that include those made from the neighbouring Deir Ez-Zor province on foot or in open-air trucks. There is a shortage of healthcare services, tents, latrines, and sanitation facilities in the camp. The WHO has said it is deploying additional vaccination teams and training healthcare workers on neonatal resuscitation. Conditions in the camp are reported by refugees as quite poor, with a lack of electricity and inadequate shelter provided by the tents in which most residents live.
Ultimately, the poor conditions of this refugee camp, as well as other refugee camps across the world, has major implications for the health and wellbeing of refugees. The current state of the camp is really highlighted when the camp infrastructure is critically stressed by a sudden influx of refugees in a region that is highly unstable and volatile. Being able to provide anything resembling adequate conditions to refugees, as well as providing essential health services, is a major challenge that international health authorities have recognized. Comprehensive solutions and re-examinations of the current approaches to refugee camps is important to prevent losses of life for those who are already risking their lives by coming to inadequate camps during a time of great turmoil.
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