Freezing temperatures and the lack of medical care have killed at least 15 displaced Syrian children in recent weeks, the United Nations reported on Tuesday.
The U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said eight of them had died as a result of the cold in the Rukban camp in southeastern Syria and seven others during the displacement from the jihadist bastion of Hajin, further north.
“Freezing temperatures and harsh living conditions in Rukban… are increasingly putting children’s lives at risk,” UNICEF regional director Geert Cappelaere said.
“In just one month, at least eight children – most of them under four months and the youngest only one hour old – have died,” he said.
Cappelaere explained that the cold in the isolated desert camp on the Jordanian border, where 80 percent of the 45,000 residents are women and children, was increasing infant mortality.
On January 13, a woman and her children in Rukban suffered serious injuries after their tent caught on fire. The woman’s husband initially said he believed the fire was a suicide attempt motivated by desperation, though U.N. officials and Syrian activists familiar with the incident told The Globe Post they believe it was an accident.
The cold snap that has hit the region is also having dire consequences on people fleeing the fighting in the so-called Hajin pocket in eastern Syria.
The @UN in #Syria calls for access to all people in need in Hajin where thousands of people are trapped and in #Rukban where some 40,000 people are also in need of assistance.https://t.co/clePSigzc0 pic.twitter.com/zMKFfS1kFI
— OCHA Syria (@OCHA_Syria) January 15, 2019
The area near the Iraqi border has seen intense fighting between Islamic State group jihadists defending the last remnants of their “caliphate” and Kurdish-led forces backed by U.S. air strikes.
According to the U.N., more than 10,000 people have fled the area since December.
“Families seeking safety face difficulties leaving the conflict zone and wait in the cold for days without shelter or basic supplies,” Cappelaere said.
“The dangerous and difficult journey has reportedly killed seven children — most of them under one-year-old” in Hajin, he said.
According to the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces battling the jihadists and to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, significant numbers of ISIS members have attempted to blend in with fleeing civilians.
‘Man-Made Loss of Life’
The United Nations, whose new special envoy Geir Pedersen was in Damascus on his first trip Tuesday, has consistently asked for improved humanitarian access in Syria.
Rukban has been particularly difficult to reach due to its sensitive location on the Jordanian border and the proximity of U.S. forces and the rebels they support.
Emergency supplies were delivered in November in the first aid convoy to reach Rukban in 10 months.
Amid freezing temperatures and lack of medical care, at least eight children died in Rukban and seven after fleeing Hajin. 13 of them were under a year old | @gcappelaere @UNICEFmena #ChildrenUnderAttack https://t.co/cK5e3bjtZ3 pic.twitter.com/FGQE1KSbdM
— Joe English (@JoeEEnglish) January 15, 2019
The World Food Program on Tuesday demanded a second such convoy be organized as soon as possible.
“The lives of babies continue to be cut short by health conditions that are preventable or treatable. There are no excuses for this in the 21st century,” Cappelaere said.
“This tragic man-made loss of life must end now,” he said.
On Tuesday, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov about the Rukban camp, the country’s foreign ministry said.
They discussed “the necessity of working to ensure the return of Rukban residents to their cities and towns” after Jordanian-Russian-American coordination.
Residents in Rukban have said however they will not go back to areas under the control of President Bashar al-Assad’s Russia-backed regime.
“We will not accept any reconciliation with Assad’s regime under any circumstance,” they said in a statement on Monday.
“We will not accept anything but the camp being transferred to northern Syria,” they said, referring to areas of the war-torn country still under rebel control.
Severe weather has hit the region in recent weeks, including heavy and sustained rainfall that flooded displacement camps in Syria and in neighboring countries.
According to the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of sources in Syria, more than 360,000 people have been killed since the start of the war in 2011.
More on the Subject
For months, officials have been warning that a humanitarian catastrophe in Rukban was imminent, particularly with as winter began to bear down the region.
In October, the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM) warned that a lack of aid was wreaking havoc on the camp and that malnourishment was widespread.
“It is barbaric and illegal under international law to deny these civilians aid. Children are facing horrific malnutrition and are drinking contaminated water,” Dr. Hussam Al Fakir, the chairman of UOSSM, said at the time.