Snowstorm hits displaced persons camps in Syria: ‘They have been completely cut off from the world’

Photo taken with a drone of displaced persons' tents covered in snow in the Shiran camp near Afrin, Syria on January 20.
Photo taken with a drone of displaced persons' tents covered in snow in the Shiran camp near Afrin, Syria on January 20. © Qusai Al Shabeeb

Northern Syria was hit by heavy snowfall on January 18, causing significant damage to at least 47 camps for displaced persons. Videos shared online show camps in the districts of Afrin and Azaz covered in snow. Three children have reportedly died and roads have been blocked by snow, further threatening aid to the vulnerable sites.

Advertising

Several regions in northern Aleppo governorate, near the border with Turkey, have been impacted by below-freezing temperatures, resulting in significant snowfall the evening of January 18. Camps for displaced persons were covered in a blanket of snow, and many tents collapsed under the weight of the snow.

Since 2011, nearly 3 million have been displaced by conflict to northwest Syria, which is controlled by Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces. More than 1.7 million of them are living in crowded, informal camps or unfinished buildings. Many of the temporary shelters in these camps had no roof or insulation or had already been damaged by natural disasters.

Winter storms like this are rare in the region and temperatures are expected to drop lower than they have in 40 years to -14 degrees Celsius, according to the NGO CARE International.

At least 362 tents in 31 sites were damaged and over 2,000 individuals were affected, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The office also received reports that a child was killed in Qastal Miqdad after a tent’s roof collapsed under the snow. Others were hospitalised for severe drops in body temperature.

People attempted to clear the snow off the tents that were still standing.

‘Some camps were almost engulfed in snow’

Ahmad Nahal is a field coordinator for Molham Team, an NGO that assists displaced populations in Syria. He told the FRANCE 24 Observers team how the weather has affected vulnerable people in the north of the country:

The snowstorm hit several camps in northeastern Syria, including Azaz and Afrin. About 47 camps hosting 50,000 refugees were damaged, Bilal and Ainjara camps in Azaz, and Abrar and Mabatli camps in Afrin. 

The snowfall started at around 8pm and continued for five hours. Some camps were almost engulfed in snow. In the camps, people are lacking everything. They don't have electricity or heating, and there are not enough blankets. 

Syria Civil Defence and NGOs went to the camps to help the refugees. Families whose tents were destroyed were housed in mosques and schools. 

'The families feel abandoned now'

Qusai Al Shabeeb is a Syrian activist and journalist who has been sharing videos from displaced persons camps on his TikTok page. He visited several camps in northern Syria to document the conditions.

It stopped snowing today [January 20], but the camps are still covered with a large amount of snow for the third day because of the snowstorm. I visited two camps today, Shiran and Al Kastal camps near Afrin. It was difficult to reach these camps because of the snow but I was able to take some photos of the Shiran camp with a drone. 

Photo taken with a drone of the Shiran camp on January 20, 2022.
Photo taken with a drone of the Shiran camp on January 20, 2022. © Qusai Al Shabeeb

About 30 families live in this camp and they have been completely cut off from the world. The snowfall has a horrible impact on life in the camps. People living there have no fridges to store their food so they usually go shopping every day. But now it’s impossible to go shopping in town. But people adapt to life with the snow. Today I met a woman from the Al Kastal camp who told me that her family has to eat the snow because the roads to go shopping are cut off. She melts the snow to use as drinking water or for bathing.

There are also safety problems. Children have fallen down because of the snow and today I met a man who fell and got seriously injured outside his tent. He is already disabled and walks with crutches. Today, before I left I noticed that the families had started to move children and the elderly to neighbouring villages of the camp to avoid them spending another night in the freezing weather. 

The families feel abandoned now with the lack of medical services and water and food in the camps. 

Aid groups have begun mobilising to clear the roads and provide people in the camps with fuel, food and blankets. They are also concerned with flood risks once the snow melts.

Efforts to stay warm have also proved dangerous. Two children died in a camp north of Aleppo following a fire in their tent caused by a heater, CNN reported

More than 6.7 million people in Syria have been internally displaced by a civil war in the country that has raged since 2011. Another 6.8 million live as refugees in other countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.