The recent winter rains and extreme cold have exacerbated the suffering of thousands of residents of displaced camps in northern Syria who are in need of winter clothes and heaters as they struggle with mud slides that are disrupting movement inside the camps.
However, with the coronavirus pandemic, rain is far from the only concern for these displaced Syrians.
The United Nations has described the conditions in the camps in northern Syria as “the largest catastrophe of the 21st century.”
International humanitarian organizations have repeatedly warned against the deteriorating conditions of the displacement camps in north Syria that are worsened by the heavy rainfall that hits the region each year. But 10 years into the Syrian war, these organizations are still struggling to contain the crisis.
According to estimates by the Syria Response Coordination Group, a local organization operating in the areas controlled by the Syrian opposition in northwestern Syria, 403 camps were severely affected by three rainstorms during the month of January.
Amid a lack of international aid, camp residents have found themselves compelled to seek their own solutions and some decided to build houses outside the camp to shield them from the cold winter and the heavy rain. But as soon as they started to build concrete houses on the farmland where they reside in the Idlib countryside, the Syrian Salvation Government, which is affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), imposed a building permit tax ranging from $1 to $3 per square meter.
Mohammed al-Ahmad, a displaced man in the eastern countryside of Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “After the rainstorms struck the area and rain flooded the tents, we spent several sleepless days due to the bitter cold. We subsequently managed to buy a small plot of land in the vicinity of Kafr Takharim town [in northern Idlib] to build a house. However, as soon as we began construction, an official from the Salvation Government asked us to immediately halt the works and threatened us with imprisonment if we did not comply. He said we had to pay a building permit fee of $3 per square meter to build a house. We were consequently forced to return to the camp and spend the rest of the winter season there because we were unable to pay the tax.”
Hasna Faysal, who is displaced in Kafr Takharim, told Al-Monitor, “The HTS-affiliated Salvation Government imposed a building permit fee of $3 per square meter, which raised the cost of building and prevented us from leaving the camp. The area where we would like to establish our house does not receive basic services such as sanitation, drinking water, electricity and paved roads, as it lies outside the city zoning, so there is no reason to impose such fees. We raised the issue to the local council, but it was unable to explain the reason behind the decision and said it was under orders.”
“I lost my husband in the shelling in the countryside of Aleppo and I had to flee with my two children to the camps on the Syrian border. It was the only place I could go after I lost my home and my husband. Everyone knows how bad the conditions are in the camps due to poor hygiene and insufficient resources to fight the spread of the pandemic. And then the torrents at the beginning of every winter season and the storms that hit the region uprooted the tent and left us with no option but to sleep outside in the cold. Some of my relatives learned about my conditions and decided to help me out, so I went to build a two-room house for my children and me. However, instead of supporting the families, the Salvation Government imposed taxes and prevented them from seeking better conditions,” she added.
Raed al-Hamed, an activist in the Idlib countryside, told Al-Monitor, “The Salvation Government imposed a construction tax of $1 to $3 per square meter depending on whether the area was located in an agricultural or residential area, on whether the building was personal or commercial and on the number of floors.”
Hamed went on, “As I was about to start building an apartment for my family in the city of Harem in the countryside of Idlib, I went to the local council in the city to ask how much I had to pay, and the council head told me that he would exempt me of the fees. But it was short-lived joy. After buying an agricultural plot and building materials and starting construction works, I received a notification from the local council in Harem whereby I had to stop because the area was located within a protected zone where no construction is allowed. It was then that I thought that I should have rejected the exemption because I am no different than the displaced who could not afford the fees, could not continue construction and had to return to the camps.”
He explained that the areas where the displaced want to establish their homes are located outside the cities and do not benefit from the services provided by the Salvation Government, so the fees are not imposed in return for anything. They are just another way for HTS to collect taxes in addition to the fees on vehicles and at crossings connecting the areas under their control to the areas controlled by the Turkish army, he added.
There are about 2.1 million internally displaced people in northern Syria, out of more than four million Syrians living in the areas controlled by the opposition. The camps’ population amounts to more than a million people living in 1,304 camps, including 187,764 people in 393 camps informally set up on agricultural lands without any UN support or other humanitarian aid.