The Middle East

The Middle East

Civilians bear the brunt of international power play

A young Syrian man carries a wounded child following an airstrike on the town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus in February 2017. Photo: Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP/NTB Scanpi A young Syrian man carries a wounded child following an airstrike on the town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus in February 2017. Photo: Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP/NTB Scanpi

A young Syrian man carries a wounded child following an airstrike on the town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus in February 2017. Photo: Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP/NTB Scanpi

A young Syrian man carries a wounded child following an airstrike on the town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus in February 2017. Photo: Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP/NTB Scanpi

Despite the near defeat of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and the possibility that some of the displaced millions across the Middle East will be able to return home safely, millions more civilians remain caught up in some of the gravest humanitarian crises in the world.

While governments and armed groups in the Middle East continue to flout rules protecting civilians, international powers have fuelled the conflicts through both action and inaction.

In 2017 alone,

5,500,000

people were forced to flee in the Middle East, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Global Trends study. 4.5 million of them were forced to flee in their own countries.


A bad year for Syrian civilians

East Ghouta - Harasta school

East Ghouta - Harasta school

2017 was one of the worst years in the seven-year Syria crisis and 2018 is on track to be equally devastating for civilians. Syria witnessed shocking rates of displacement, with 3.8 million people forced to flee because of intensified fighting between government and opposition forces. Across the region, Syrian refugees remain vulnerable and pressured to return to their war-torn country. The needs on the ground are increasing at an alarming rate, and aid agencies warn they will be unable to meet them.

Around 2.9 million people were internally displaced by violence in Syria in 2017 alone, with continued attacks on civilians and critical infrastructure like schools and hospitals. 7.3 million Syrians are living in communities reporting explosive hazards such as mines, unexploded or abandoned bombs, cluster munitions, grenades, and rockets shells.

Access to aid has been systematically compromised and denied by the warring parties inside Syria. This has deliberately harmed civilians and, in some cases, turned humanitarian workers into targets.

Across the region, 2.7 million Syrian children are still out of school. Millions of Syrians, inside and outside the country, lack legal documents and are not registered, which makes it difficult for them to access aid, education and employment.

At the same time, a report from Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and other aid organisations from February 2018 showed that hundreds of thousands of Syrians risk being forced to return. Many of them will have to return to unsafe, explosive-ridden and devastated neighbourhoods without basic services, or to where there is still active fighting. The majority of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan live below the poverty line. Their precarious situation might lead them to return to Syria before it is safe.

Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State Group (IS)

The destruction left in the wake of the fight against The Islamic State Group (ISIS) in Mosul. Photo: Karl Schembri/NRC The destruction left in the wake of the fight against The Islamic State Group (ISIS) in Mosul. Photo: Karl Schembri/NRC

The destruction left in the wake of the fight against The Islamic State Group (ISIS) in Mosul. Photo: Karl Schembri/NRC

The destruction left in the wake of the fight against The Islamic State Group (ISIS) in Mosul. Photo: Karl Schembri/NRC

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory against IS in December 2017. The retaking of the city of Mosul signalled the radical group’s most significant defeat. But the destruction left in the wake of the war, as well as the enormity of civilian casualties and displacement, mean the ordeal for ordinary Iraqis is far from over.

While close to 4 million Iraqis have been able to return to the proximity of their homes, 2.6 million remain internally displaced. Many have been unable or unwilling to return due to lacking security, slow demining and de-contamination. In some parts of the country pressure continues on the displaced to return to their homes. In late 2017, 9,000 people were forcibly returned from camps in Anbar. Some returning families have faced ongoing violence, or a total absence of essential services like hospitals, schools and water. Livelihood opportunities in the return areas are also scarce.

The Iraqi government says it needs USD 88 billion, just to recover from the last three years of conflict. However, the Kuwait conference for Iraq’s reconstruction held last February was more concerned with investment opportunities and vague talk of big business. If anything, it confirmed a declared retreat of the US government commitments to aid and development funding in the region.

And yet, if coalition governments do not support Iraq in this crucial moment there is a significant risk of further disaster. Funding is essential to secure the future of Iraq’s most vulnerable people, who will otherwise be left in displacement, disaffection and despair.

Iraqi tailor Salah took his sewing machine with him when he escaped the fighting. Now he has set up a tailoring business in a camp for displaced people near Mosul. Photo: Lam Duc Hien/NRC

Iraqi tailor Salah took his sewing machine with him when he escaped the fighting. Now he has set up a tailoring business in a camp for displaced people near Mosul. Photo: Lam Duc Hien/NRC

War, cholera and poverty in Yemen

"You see your child die in front of you. Why don't they let us live our lives?" asks Radwa's father in Yemen. His daughter is malnourished and weighs only 3 kilos. Photo: Karl Schembri/ NRC "You see your child die in front of you. Why don't they let us live our lives?" asks Radwa's father in Yemen. His daughter is malnourished and weighs only 3 kilos. Photo: Karl Schembri/ NRC

"You see your child die in front of you. Why don't they let us live our lives?" asks Radwa's father in Yemen. His daughter is malnourished and weighs only 3 kilos. Photo: Karl Schembri/ NRC

"You see your child die in front of you. Why don't they let us live our lives?" asks Radwa's father in Yemen. His daughter is malnourished and weighs only 3 kilos. Photo: Karl Schembri/ NRC

Yemen: Civilian houses destroyed by air strikes in Sana'a. Photo: Karl Schembri/NRC

Yemen: Civilian houses destroyed by air strikes in Sana'a. Photo: Karl Schembri/NRC

War, cholera and abject poverty have taken an enormous toll on Yemeni civilians. The US supported Saudi-led coalition are fighting the insurgents Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthi movement. The coalition intensified the blockade of all ports and airports in Yemen at the end of 2017. The imposition of a full blockade on Hodeida Port in November 2017 set off dramatic inflation across the country that has since continued, despite the resumption of imports. The inflation has made basic goods and fuel unaffordable for most people.

Three quarters of Yemen’s population – more than 22 million people – now need some form of humanitarian assistance or protection. But ongoing measures restricting the movement of humanitarian actors mean almost half of them live in areas that are difficult to reach with aid. Earlier this year, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia began promoting a humanitarian logistics plan to address humanitarian needs created by ongoing violence. This is an example of the duplicity of nations trading in arms and bombs being used on Yemeni civilians, while pledging money in an attempt to keep them alive.

The price tag on this year’s Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan is USD 2.96 billion, an increase of 80 per cent since 2016. Three years of war in Yemen have systematically destroyed social safety nets and pushed millions of people towards aid dependency. Ansar Allah authorities, which control areas across northern Yemen, are collecting taxes but not funding the services people need.

"If the Saudi-led coalition really wants to relieve the suffering in Yemen, it should completely lift the blockade on commercial imports, including fuel, that is crippling the country."
NRC Secretary General Jan Egeland

1.2 million public servants in Yemen have not been paid their usual salaries since August 2016, leaving more than half the population without access to basic healthcare, education, safe water or sanitation. The situation has led to the world’s largest cholera outbreak in decades. Between April and December 2017, more than one million suspected cases of cholera were reported, with more than 2,200 deaths.

Deepening crisis in Palestine

Palestinians burn tyres in response to Israeli forces' intervention during a demonstration within the "Great March of Return" near Israeli border in Khan Yunis, Gaza on May 11, 2018. Photo: Mustafa Hassona / Anadolu Agency/NTB Scanpix

Palestinians burn tyres in response to Israeli forces' intervention during a demonstration within the "Great March of Return" near Israeli border in Khan Yunis, Gaza on May 11, 2018. Photo: Mustafa Hassona / Anadolu Agency/NTB Scanpix

70 years after the establishment of Israel, generations of Palestinian refugees are still displaced across the region. More than 700,000 people were expelled or fled from their homes and communities in 1948. Today, a total of almost 5.6 million Palestinian refugees still live in displacement.

The US government’s sudden and severe funding cuts to for UNWRA, a UN relief organisation set up to support Palestinian refugees, and other agencies and NGOs was announced early this year. This move could jeopardise the stability of long-term support for Palestinian refugees in the region. Education, healthcare and employment services have already been reduced, with insufficient funding to continue providing food aid and emergency responses in the second half of the year.

In the West Bank including East Jerusalem, the demolition and confiscation of Palestinian property, the annexation of Palestinian land and the construction of illegal settlements continues to displace Palestinian families and communities.

This year, the situation in Gaza attracted international attention. The people living in the enclave organised a six week protest demanding that Palestinian refugees and their descendants be allowed to return to what is now Israel. More than a hundred Palestinians were killed in the protests and thousands were wounded. This excessive use of force, and the debilitating nature of many of the injuries, has overwhelmed the capacity of Gaza’s health sector, already devastated by 11 years of blockade. This shocking rise in casualties takes place against the backdrop of rapidly deteriorating living conditions in Gaza. Half the population of 1.9 million people now live in poverty and are reliant on food aid, without access to essential services, including clean water, sanitation and electricity. By 2020, the UN warn that the Gaza Strip will be unlivable.

Children from Al Muntar Bedouin community in the West Bank risk losing their school if the Israeli courts decide to demolish it. The school is a crucial basic service for the community. Photo: Lys Arango/AAH/NTB Scanpix

Children from Al Muntar Bedouin community in the West Bank risk losing their school if the Israeli courts decide to demolish it. The school is a crucial basic service for the community. Photo: Lys Arango/AAH/NTB Scanpix