NUMBER OF INTERNALLY DISPLACED PEOPLE DOUBLES
▶ Almost 4.5 million Mena residents fled to safety in their countries in 2017
The number of internally displaced people in the Middle East and North Africa almost doubled last year, with about 4.5 million forced to flee their homes to escape conflict and violence.
This statistic, underscoring the scale of human flight within countries, merely compounds the already huge numbers of refugees who have crossed borders to escape war.
The number of those affected – about 12,000 people a day last year were internally displaced across the Middle East alone – was almost twice the figure, 2.4 million, recorded 12 months previously.
A report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and the Norwegian Refugee Council said yesterday that the rise was largely due to the ongoing civil war in Syria.
Unlike refugees, internally displaced people remain within their state borders and therefore remain under the protection and rule of their own government, even if that government is the reason for their displacement. They often move to areas where it is difficult to deliver humanitarian assistance and, as a result, these people are among the most vulnerable in the world, said the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR.
Last year, the region accounted for 38 per cent of the global total of 11.8 million internally displaced people, with 2.9 million new movements that year in Syria alone.
The report said about 6.7 million Syrians are displaced within the country as a result of the seven-year conflict, the largest internally displaced population in the world.
Dr Ali Kamal and his family were displaced in Syria last year when rebel forces in the Homs countryside surrendered to the Syrian regime. They moved to a camp on the outskirts of Idlib in the country’s north-west.
“Most of the displaced people are living miserable lives,” Dr Kamal told The National.
“The hope was at least things would be more calm and basic services would be better than when we were under siege in our village.”
But, like most of those displaced, Dr Kamal and his family found no solace in relocation. Instead they were confronted with a dire security situation, health problems such as typhoid fever and scabies and being far from the familiarity of their hometowns.
“The internally displaced do not feel any safer or happier than they were in the homes they were forced to leave,” he said.
Many Syrians have been displaced several times, the monitoring centre’s director Alexandra Bilak told The National.
Some families, she said, have been displaced as many as 25 times since the start of the war.
The recent major offensive on Eastern Ghouta near Damascus led to tens of thousands of the 400,000 residents bussed north to seemingly safer rebelheld areas. The move followed a weeks-long assault by the Syrian regime and its Russian allies on the Damascus suburbs.
In neighbouring Iraq, the fight against ISIS also caused widespread displacement, with the battle to retake the city of Mosul causing more than 730,000 displacements last year. Iraq now has 2.6 million internally displaced people.
But even returnees are faced
with dangers, aid workers said. Dozens of Iraqis returning to liberated areas have been killed by unexploded ordnance and IEDs left by ISIS or acts of vigilante reprisal since government forces retook the city.
On November 25 last year, Saleh Ahmed, 37, and his family were forced to return to their hometown of Betaya in Anbar.
“They [Iraqi forces] gave him a tent. He went back to our destroyed house and tried to pitch it in our yard,” said his father, Mahdi Ahmed.
An explosive went off. Mr Ahmed Jr’s wife was killed instantly and his daughter sustained full body burns.
He lost an eye and was seriously injured in the other, according to one of his sons, who witnessed the blast.
Imad Mohammed, 35, returned to Fallujah in December 2016 after three years of displacement in the Kurdish city of Shaqlawa.
“The city was destroyed, everything was destroyed,” Mr Mohammed told The National. “There were no facilities, no hospitals, no houses. I didn’t want to go back because of that.”
Mr Mohammed’s family was twice displaced in 2004 after the two battles for Fallujah. “We are used to being displaced,” he said.
Ms Bilak said: “Premature return is extremely dangerous.”
Early return often puts more pressure on communities that are already very vulnerable, fraying an already delicate social fabric, she said.
“This report shows why we need a new approach to address the huge costs of internal displacement, not only to individuals but also to the economy, stability and security of affected countries,” Ms Bilak said.
There is a need for a longer-term approach and the coming together of national and international actors, she said.
“We need to recognise that the states themselves need to take action and support them in finding their own solution. Support them in integrating internal displacement as the core part for their ongoing national priorities.
“Return is always treated as the favourite solution,” Ms Bilak said.
“But in many contexts it won’t be the option any time soon.”
There were 11.8 million people worldwide uprooted from their homes and displaced internally last year – compared with the 6.9 million who suffered the same fate a year earlier.
The report found that 76 per cent of those newly displaced last year were concentrated in just 10 countries, with Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq alone accounting for more than half.
“The staggering number of people forced to flee from their homes due to conflict and violence must serve as an eye-opener to us all,” said NRC chief Jan Egeland.
Premature return is extremely dangerous, often putting more pressure on communities that are already very vulnerable