170,000 people living in the open in northwestern Syria: UN
An estimated 170,000 of the 900,000 civilians forced from their homes in a massive wave of displacement in northwestern Syria are living out in the open, the U.N. said on Feb. 20.
The largest displacement since the civil war in Syria broke out nearly nine years ago comes in the thick of winter, with temperatures often dipping below zero Celsius and snow covering some districts.
"Harsh winter conditions further aggravate the suffering of these vulnerable people who fled their homes to escape the violence, most of whom have been displaced multiple times over nine years of conflict," the United Nations said.
In its latest update, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said around a fifth of those newly displaced were sleeping rough.
"Almost 170,000 of those newly displaced people are estimated to be living in the open or in unfinished buildings," it said.
The U.N. said that the camps sheltering some of the rest were overstretched and that many families were pitching tents on plots with no access to basic services such as latrines.
The U.N.'s top humanitarian coordinator Mark Lowcock had warned earlier this week that a ceasefire was needed to avert a humanitarian disaster on a scale yet unseen in the Syria war.
But in a Feb. 19 vote at the U.N. Security Council, Russia unsurprisingly blocked a resolution demanding a ceasefire in northwestern Syria.
Backed by Russian warplanes, Syrian regime and allied forces have been closing in on the last bastion of armed opposition.
A pincer movement of forces thrusting their way into Idlib from the south and from Aleppo province to the east is boxing holdout rebels into an ever-shrinking enclave.
It is also forcing the estimated three million people into an increasingly confined and densely populated area near the border with Turkey.
The U.N. has called on Turkey to take in more refugees, arguing that the emergency is extreme.
"We need an end to the fighting, and access to safety to preserve lives," UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi said in a statement.
"I am also appealing for neighbouring countries, including Turkey, to broaden admissions, so that those most in danger can reach safety," Grandi said.
Turkey has said it is unwilling to open its borders to a new wave of Syrian refugees -- on top of the 3.6 million it has already taken in.
Grandi said "capacities and public support are already strained" in neighbouring countries and asked for more international support for governments taking in refugees.
Grandi said 80 percent of the displaced people were women and children and underlined the importance of safe humanitarian access to them.
UNHCR has stocks in the region to meet the immediate needs of up to 2.1 million people, including tents for 400,000, Grandi said, pointing out that there were an estimated four million civilians in the region.
"Thousands of innocent people cannot pay the price of a divided international community, whose inability to find a solution to this crisis is going to be a grave stain on our collective international conscience," Grandi said.
According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the regime offensive has killed more than 400 civilians since it began in December, adding to the toll of more than 380,000 who have died in the conflict.