Hassan Ibrahim | Lujain Mourad
“As soon as we survived the earthquake, the rains greeted us and left us homeless, in a displacement that we have been accustomed to for years,” Ibrahim al-Mohammad summarized the story of his displacement with his nine family members since the massive earthquake struck the region on February 6, until the rains that swept the region last March.
The earthquake that struck southern Turkey and four Syrian governorates displaced more than 57,000 families in northwest Syria, deepening the gap in obtaining shelter in an area crowded with miserable IDP camps.
Previous UN figures indicate that there are about 1.9 million Syrians living in tents or places that lack basic services, and with the disaster of the earthquake, the number has exceeded two million.
A “stricken” region whose misery has increased over the past years, with waves of internal displacement driven by the bombing of the regime and its allies.
In addition, the opening of the border crossings with Turkey for the entry of the “stricken people” following the earthquake exacerbated the situation, with more than 71,000 returnees to the region.
Weather conditions added to the misery, as snow and rain every year deepen the suffering, and a few days ago, the strong winds uprooted the tents and flooded part of them, leaving their residents in the open again.
In this file, Enab Baladi discusses with researchers, local officials, and organizations operating in the north the reality of shelter in the region, the urgent need for shelter in the short and long term, the direction of governments and organizations to secure homes and residential communities and rehabilitate those that have been damaged, the obstacles in front of them, and the proposed solutions to overcome the recurring housing tragedy.
Causes of shelter crisis
The IDP Ibrahim, originally from eastern Deir Ezzor city, said that after the earthquake, he moved with his family from a house in Jindires city to a shelter consisting of several tents inside an agricultural land among olive trees to the west of the city. And because the shelter center is on flat land with a high perimeter, it turned into a gathering point for rainwater that accompanied the storm, which led to the sinking of the tents.
The assistance of the people close to the camp and the arrival of rescue teams helped to quickly draw water from the land of the tents by opening channels. However, the rains damaged the awnings, mattresses, and furniture, returning the displaced to a very miserable stage, looking for the minimum necessities for survival, with the shelter center essentially lacking sewage and water networks and education points, and safe spaces for children, according to Ibrahim.
The case of the young man is one of the tens of thousands of cases affected by the rains on March 18 and 19, which affected 33,742 people, including 11,457 women and 13,566 children, in 63 camps and 21 shelters in northwestern Syria, and the total number of damaged tents reached 514, partially damaged 1,044 and 6,732 people lost shelter due to the rains.
Rainfall and torrential rains swept through the camps more than a month after the February 6 earthquake that hit the region, which resulted in more than 4,500 deaths and more than 8,700 injuries in northwestern Syria.
An earthquake that displaced more than 57,000 families after no less than 148 towns and villages were affected, more than 1,869 buildings were completely destroyed, and more than 8,731 buildings were partially damaged.
After the earthquake, the border crossings with Turkey opened their doors to the Syrians affected by the earthquake in ten affected Turkish states, receiving more than 71,000 returnees on conditional leave to northern Syria, which imposed new burdens, foremost of which is securing shelter, within a “stricken” area from the moment of the earthquake.
Rainfalls, earthquakes, and vacations from Turkey increased the need for shelter, and the crisis of searching for the simplest components of shelter, represented by an awning or a piece of cloth tied with ropes and supported by a stake, aggravated, in an area that gathered Syrians from various regions fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime and its allies.
Before the earthquake, northern Syria included more than 1,490 camps, in which about 1.52 million people reside in deteriorating conditions, with limited or no access to health services, clean water, or electricity, bringing the number to 1.9 million people after the earthquake.
The largest wave of displacement the region witnessed was in November 2019, when the regime, backed by Russian air forces, led a massive campaign of escalation in the northern countryside of Hama and the southern and eastern countryside of Idlib, which led to its control of hundreds of villages, and the campaign was considered the most violent against the last strongholds of the opposition.
“Governments” assess damage waiting for support
Humanitarian and relief organizations, volunteer teams, the Syria Salvation Government (SSG), and the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) share efforts to respond to the successive damages that afflict the people in northwestern Syria, but their capacity is limited in the face of a torrent of disasters with successive natural and human causes.
The head of the Salvation Government operating in Idlib, Ali Keda, said in a press conference attended by Enab Baladi that the region is facing a crisis that goes beyond the catastrophe of the earthquake, which is its consequences that will accompany the region for a long time, pointing out that the Salvation Government asked the Arab and international delegations that arrived to the area to transfer aid from in kind to building housing units.
Keda added during the conference on March 9 that housing plans are ready and buildable lands are available.
He pointed out that the repercussions of the earthquake, such as the displacement and destruction of infrastructure and the cracking of hundreds of buildings, led to a humanitarian catastrophe that has been exacerbated steadily over the past period and an economic deterioration whose repercussions began to be reflected in northern Syria.
The Salvation Government handed over about 600 apartments to families affected by the earthquake, and it was among previous projects to secure temporary or semi-permanent housing to move families from camps to residences, with promises to deliver apartments in the next stage according to what is available, according to Keda.
Jamal al-Shahoud, director of public relations in the Salvation Government, told Enab Baladi that the Ministry of Development and Humanitarian Affairs is currently studying several projects submitted by humanitarian organizations to build housing units.
In addition to the implementation by several other parties of donation campaigns for the construction of other additional buildings, but so far, there are no existing buildings for those affected by the earthquake, and the reconstruction of those affected by them will take a long period, according to al-Shahoud.
The number of shelters for those affected by the earthquake in the areas controlled by the Salvation Government reached 58 camps, in which 12,000 people reside. These camps were established, according to al-Shahoud, temporarily as a result of the state of emergency. Government agencies are working to cancel these centers and transfer the people to permanent residential buildings according to the available capabilities.
Al-Shahoud explained that there are several levels of building restoration, starting from demolition, consolidation, and repairing simple cracks, and government agencies are working in cooperation with organizations to provide what is necessary in accordance with the available capabilities.
The head of the local council in the city of Jindires, north of Aleppo, Mahmoud Haffar, explained to Enab Baladi that efforts are still focused on removing the rubble in the city, which was the most affected area in northern Syria, followed by the rehabilitation of the infrastructure.
Haffar said that most of the residents now have temporary shelter (tents) after the establishment of more than 70 shelters, and for permanent shelters from the restoration of damaged buildings or the construction of new housing complexes, the council submitted studies and evaluations to the organizations and to the Interim Government that runs the area, but it has not been accredited yet.
He added that the local council submits studies, including assessments and needs, to any party that requests them, whether to organizations or to the Interim Government, which in turn submits studies to donors.
Haffar pointed out that the response has now taken place by rehabilitating the water networks, closing the unqualified lines, and gradually pumping water to the neighborhoods.
Organizations with limited resources, donations and temporary solutions
Local organizations, associations, and activists launched campaigns to support those affected by the earthquake in northern Syria, most of which were relief and in-kind materials, and a few were directed towards restoration or building communities and housing projects.
After the earthquake, the Molham Volunteering Team (MVT) operating in northern Syria and Turkey launched a campaign entitled “We Can Fund,” with the aim of collecting $20 million as a first stage for the reconstruction of 4,000 homes, at a cost of $5,000 per house, in northwestern Syria.
Baraa Babuli, director of the shelter department in the Molham Volunteering Team, told Enab Baladi that the work began with the distribution of tents in the first phase, with the presence and wide intervention of organizations to secure them.
The amount received as of March 24 reached approximately $12.46 million, which means that the number of insured homes so far has reached about 2493, and the campaign continues despite the cessation of the live broadcast.
Babuli explained that the number of beneficiaries at the present time is zero, but the target set in the first phase is 2,000 homes in several areas in Idlib governorate and areas affected by damage in the countryside of Aleppo.
The director of the “This is My Life” volunteer group, Saria Bitar, told Enab Baladi that the group operates according to three levels.
The first is securing temporary shelters of tents and their supplies, the second is the restoration of damaged homes, and the third level is the construction of residential villages with high engineering specifications.
Bitar explained that the specified period for each level is related to the size of the need, which is six months for the temporary shelter and a year for the permanent shelter stage.
The director of partnerships and advocacy at the Ataa for Humanitarian Relief Association, Saria Akkad, told Enab Baladi that the association is working according to the priorities set by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
The priorities are to establish temporary accommodation centers for the affected people, then provide them with basic needs such as blankets, kitchen materials, foodstuffs, and clothes, then focus on restoring lightly damaged buildings and restoring damaged public buildings such as schools, hospitals, and clinics.
Akkad added that the second phase of the response is the restoration of facilities that have been moderately damaged, or what is known as a medium value, such as building a new wall or perhaps repairs to the water and sewage networks.
Accumulated shelter crises, what is the need now?
Camps, most of which are in remote areas, were a refuge from the torrent of disasters in the region, but they lack the slightest elements and are subject to collapse and damage with any weather factors, whether in the cold of winter or the heat of summer, and are not equipped with means of heating, drinking water, and toilets, in addition to the overcrowding of one tent with two or more families, with appeals from their inhabitants and other voices refusing to turn these tents into permanent shelters.
The needs of the region in the shelter sector after the earthquake disaster, according to a report issued by the Shelter Cluster in the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), are divided into three sections:
– Provide tents and temporary housing, and meet the needs for food and non-food items.
– Provide more sustainable shelter for survivors, as well as carry out minor repairs to partially damaged homes.
– Protecting those affected by the earthquake by supporting home assessments and debris removal.
Cluster: working groups comprising UN, international, and local humanitarian organizations, divided according to the humanitarian response sectors (health, food security, shelter, and protection).
The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) is responsible for the “cluster” approach to coordinating the work of humanitarian response organizations and strengthening their emergency response capacity.
Saria Akkad, director of partnerships and advocacy at the Ataa Relief Association, said that the priority at the present time is no longer limited to securing tents and camp supplies.
He pointed out the need to focus on restoring demolished homes, removing tents to house the affected people in temporary homes, as well as working on building sustainable homes.
The temporary homes that the area needs are made of plastic and wooden panels, similar to “caravans,” which protect families from storm damage, Akkad told Enab Baladi.
The director of the shelter sector in the Molham Volunteering Team, Baraa Babuli, pointed out that northern Syria needs to provide quick shelter for the affected families, but this does not negate the necessity of working to provide a permanent solution to the shelter problem in the region.
In the face of the chaos of numbers and the absence of accurate statistics, the United Nations estimated the needs of the various regions of Syria in the shelter and non-food items sector after the earthquake at about $51,900,000, while the number of people who need shelter in northwestern Syria reached only about 280,000 people.
UN and international concerns
Obstacles to the “roof and walls” dream
Over the past years, some organizations have taken steps to reduce the suffering of children who draw the word “home” in their imaginations as a tent and to save hundreds of families from seasonal disasters in the camps.
The organizations were able to transfer thousands of families from the camps to residential communities, but their steps did not provide a radical solution to the disaster, in light of the presence of more than 1.9 million people living in the camps, according to UN statistics.
Despite the exacerbation of the camp crisis as a result of the earthquake disaster, most aid, especially international aid, is still focused on providing emergency and temporary solutions, which raises questions about the reasons for the absence of plans that can provide radical solutions to the problem.
The director of the shelter sector in the Molham Volunteering Team, Baraa Babuli, attributed the absence of radical solutions to the shelter disaster in the north to the absence of plans by UN and international organizations to implement projects that provide permanent shelter for families.
Babuli explained that the main problem is related to the fears of those parties about the conflict between shelter and reconstruction projects that are banned in Syria, which forces local organizations operating in the north to rely on the support provided by donors, whether they are individuals or non-international organizations.
Saria Akkad believes that the organizations’ concerns are related to building brick houses, as they could be considered part of the reconstruction projects or part of the demographic change process.
The focus has been on sustainable housing projects in OCHA’s Shelter Cluster since 2019, but direct support in this context is still absent due to concerns about reconstruction.
Baraa Babuli, Shelter Sector Manager at Molham Volunteering Team
For his part, the humanitarian activist Dr. Zaidoun al-Zoubi said that talking about reconstruction that solves the shelter crisis in northern Syria may mean talking about reconstruction that includes all of Syria, which is rejected by all parties.
Al-Zoubi, who specializes in quality management and governance, added, in an interview with Enab Baladi, that the organizations have two options, the first of which is the reconstruction of the north on the basis of an actual division of the country, pointing out that the donors will not be ready for this step.
The second option is not to implement any projects in this context and to continue providing emergency solutions, according to al-Zoubi.
In response to these concerns, Firas Haj Yahya, a legal researcher and specialist in urban planning and environment rights residing in France, said that the sanctions imposed on Syria restrict financing and support for reconstruction projects in Syria, but they do not necessarily include a comprehensive ban on all construction projects.
It is important to consult with legal experts and authorities in the relevant donor countries to determine the restrictions on financing and supporting construction projects in northwestern Syria, according to Haj Yahya, pointing out that financing shelter projects is possible with obstacles that can be overcome.
Concerning concerns about the link between supporting projects in the north and funding similar projects in regime-controlled areas, Haj Yahya said that aid should be provided based on the needs of the affected population, without discrimination or political considerations.
He added that supporting these projects in a specific area of conflict does not necessarily mean that the same projects will be implemented in regime-controlled areas.
The legal researcher agrees with the existence of concerns related to demographic change, as he said that some of these projects may aim to create a new demographic reality in Syria based on the outcomes of the current conflict and the distribution of areas of control.
Quick effect as a priority
A recurring scene that transformed the camp crisis into a seasonal condition, the response to which is linked to the existence of a disaster, leading to appeals for emergency aid that temporarily reduces the suffering of the people.
Expert and activist in the humanitarian field and shelter projects, Mazen Traboulsi attributed the absence of durable solutions to the lack of focus and interest on the part of donors in providing sustainable projects.
Despite the continuation of the conflict in Syria for more than a decade, donors have not taken any effective steps to move from the emergency response phase and start the construction phase to overcome the crisis of the camps, according to what Traboulsi told Enab Baladi.
He pointed out that the amounts spent on humanitarian aid are “imaginary,” but they have not been able to solve any problem radically.
Traboulsi added that “early recovery” projects and sustainable solutions have begun to fall within the activities of donors slightly over the past two years, but they will not cover the need.
Most of the organizations’ employees whom Enab Baladi spoke to agree with what Traboulsi said, as they confirmed that many donors focus on quick-impact projects, while sustainable projects are marginalized.
Relying on quick-impact projects and focusing on emergency aid for the camps without providing sustainable solutions contributed to the camps being linked to the continuity of support for many people, according to Baraa Babuli, the director of the shelter sector at the Molham Volunteering Team.
Babuli explained that many people fear losing the support provided to them if they are transferred to residential communities, pointing to the need for sustainable development projects that support the residents of camps and residential communities in the long term.
Humanitarian money is faster and easier than development money. We are still dealing with the Syrian crisis as a transient crisis, and therefore keeping people in tents is a catastrophe in the world.
Dr. Zaidoun al-Zoubi, Specialist in Quality Management and Governance
The expert, Mazen Traboulsi, believes that one of the reasons for the persistence of the shelter crisis in northern Syria is the weakness of advocacy for durable solutions from the implementing organizations and the sufficiency of following the strategy and vision of the supporters and donors.
Many of the projects presented by donors may not be designed for Syria, which makes implementing them without the local implementing organizations’ vision a waste of resources and time, according to Traboulsi.
The expert expected the emergence of an additional problem with the supply of materials needed for a sustainable response in the shelter sector due to the great demand for materials in Turkey following the earthquake disaster.
He pointed out that there are many obstacles related to the ownership of land on which housing projects can be established.
A report issued by the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), which is responsible for coordinating humanitarian relief operations in Syria, stated that the ownership of most of the lands of the residential complexes in northern Syria belonged to the government before the residential complexes were built on them.
In addition, some of the lands of the residential communities were private agricultural lands, and there are some complexes built on forests and hills that are not owned by any party, according to the report.
Solutions to end the tragedy
Civil society organizations bear the responsibility of working on plans that provide sustainable solutions to prevent the camps from becoming part of the map of northern Syria amid the absence of political solutions capable of ending the tragedy of the camps.
Mazen Traboulsi believes that a quick and viable solution in the short term is the use of prefabricated houses, which shortens construction time and considers its cost acceptable, and can provide shelter for thousands of families until there is a radical solution that ends this “tragedy.”
Traboulsi recommended focusing on supporting projects for building houses and preparing their infrastructure, in addition to making the maximum duration of emergency activities three months.
Determining the duration of emergency activities contributes to reducing the waste of resources in temporary and limited-impact projects, and the issuance of a clear plan and strategy for the direction of donors by local organizations working in humanitarian affairs can contribute to providing more effective solutions, according to Traboulsi.
For his part, legal researcher and specialist in urban planning and environmental rights Firas Haj Yahya believes that effective solutions can include:
Shelter rehabilitation: Rehabilitating damaged or destroyed housing to make it livable again.
Rental assistance: Providing rental assistance to families who have lost their homes.
Cash assistance: Providing cash assistance to families who have lost their homes so that they can meet their basic needs, purchase shelter materials or pay rent.
Host community support: Providing support to host communities that accommodate large numbers of displaced people by providing basic services and improving infrastructure.
Haj Yahya recommended that these steps be complemented by long-term efforts to address the root causes of displacement and to promote durable solutions such as safe and affordable housing, access to basic services, and livelihood opportunities.
“Cash for housing” is among the solutions offered by the Shelter Cluster in northern Syria following the earthquake disaster, as a report issued on February 22 recommended the need to provide cash assistance to secure shelter for those affected.
The cash assistance includes providing an amount not exceeding $400 for owners of slightly damaged homes and an amount ranging between $400 and $1,000 for the most affected units and includes the construction of safe shelters at the cost of between $1,500 and $3,500 within the construction standards specified in accordance with the Dignified Shelter Technical Guidance.
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