Meeting the urgent humanitarian needs of millions of displaced and returning Syrians inside the country is the immediate priority of the UN Refugee Agency and other aid organizations, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said during a visit to Syria on Thursday.
Grandi was speaking in Douma, Eastern Ghouta’s main city, located some ten kilometres outside the capital, Damascus. The area suffered widespread destruction during years of fighting, culminating in an intense battle when the government retook control of the city earlier this year.
Thousands of families fled the city during the recent violence and preceding years of conflict, with 125,000 people currently living in the area compared with a pre-crisis population of some 300,000.
Amongst the collapsed buildings and piles of rubble, however, some of the recently displaced are returning to try to rebuild their homes and lives. But with few dwellings left unscathed and even the most basic services in short supply, Grandi warned that the humanitarian needs of the population remained immense.
“Although of course a lot of people are still displaced from their homes, many have returned,” Grandi said. “They are trying to live a normal life amidst the ruins, with very little resources, struggling to normalize life that has been disrupted by so many years of war.”
“There are children here amidst the ruins that need to go to school, that need to be fed, that need to be clothed.”
“There are children here amidst the ruins that need to go to school, that need to be fed, that need to be clothed,” he added. “What we must do is help the people, beyond all politics – and the politics of this conflict, as we all know, are quite complex. For the time being, it’s the immediate humanitarian needs that need to be urgently met.”
Now in its eighth year, the Syria conflict has seen more than 5.6 million refugees flee to neighbouring countries in the region, while according to OCHA figures a further 6.6 million remain displaced within the country. So far this year, more than 750,000 previously displaced Syrians have returned to their areas of origin.
Walking the streets of Douma, the High Commissioner saw returning residents clearing rubble from their homes with shovels and wheelbarrows, and shopkeepers displaying eggplants and tomatoes in newly refurbished store fronts.
He also met residents still barely able to make ends meet. Mohammad, a 75-year-old widower, said he, his son and his two daughters were lucky to survive when a mortar struck their house during the recent fighting, collapsing the building’s upper floors.
They now live in two ground-floor rooms that they were able to clear of debris, and rely on donations from neighbours and mattresses, blankets and kitchen items provided by UNHCR to get by. “We need everything,” he said. “We don’t have anything here. Nothing at all.”
As well as distributing relief items and shelter rehabilitation kits, UNHCR has established a network of 97 community centres across the country to provide educational and vocational courses for children and adults, as well as protection services to vulnerable displaced and local Syrians.
“We need everything. We don’t have anything here. Nothing at all.”
It has also funded the rehabilitation of vital infrastructure such as schools and health clinics. On Thursday, Grandi visited a bakery and civil registry in the southern city of Dara’a refurbished with funding from UNHCR.
The former provides more than 200,000 loaves of bread a day to locals, while the registry helps Syrians who have been unable to obtain birth certificates, marriage certificates and other official papers during years of conflict to get the documents they need in order to access services and rebuild their lives.
The previous day, in Damascus, the High Commissioner had wide-ranging discussions with Dr. Faisal Mekdad, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, and other senior Syrian officials.
Grandi acknowledged the government’s statement of last month welcoming refugees back. Both he and his government interlocutors agreed that refugee repatriation can only be based on a voluntary decision by refugees themselves, and needs to take place in safe and dignified conditions, and to be sustainable for the longer-term. Grandi conveyed to the Syrian officials the concerns refugees cite regarding return.
According to UNHCR surveys and focus group interviews in neighbouring countries, these include the fragility of the security situation in some parts of the country, the presence of unexploded ordinance and physical risks in other areas, and the need for guarantees that they will remain safe on return and that their rights will be respected.
For some, military conscription and fear of punishment for having fled or refused to fight are key deterrents. Legal obstacles and challenges in reclaiming property or having their civil documentation or education certificates recognized are also cited.
For many refugees, their homes have been destroyed, access to basic services is disrupted, and they are concerned over how they will provide for their families. Grandi observed that many of these challenges are starting to be addressed, which is encouraging, but much more remains to be done.
“Syrian women have always been strong, but now we are even stronger.”
Small numbers of refugees have returned to Syria since the beginning of the conflict – over 90,000 refugees from neighbouring countries in the last three years. Since early 2017, UNHCR, UN agencies and NGO partners have been engaged in preparedness and planning for an eventual larger-scale organized return.
For those Syrian refugees choosing to return, UNHCR offers support. Examples include helping refugees to reclaim their documents, addressing the specific needs of particularly vulnerable individuals, and identifying and finding solutions for unaccompanied and separated children.
In his meetings, the High Commissioner also expressed his concern about the situation in Idlib, and his hope that any military offensive there “is conducted in a manner that respects human lives, spares civilians and doesn’t create new refugees.”
Grandi also visited a community centre in the Dweila neighbourhood of the capital, where he met 48-year-old Mariam Ghanoum, who was taking a vocational training course in painting and decorating having been displaced from her home in Rural Damascus more than 7 years ago.
She said she planned to paint her own house once they are able to rebuild it, and perhaps establish a business painting other rebuilt homes. “I’m learning this skill hopefully to make some money, but also to empower myself,” she said. “Syrian women have always been strong, but now we are even stronger.”