Aid agencies struggle to cope with rise in new arrivals, with scores dying on the way to the settlements
An estimated 7,000 women and children from more than 40 nations, including the US, UK, Australia and Europe, are living in tense and chaotic conditions in camps in north-eastern Syria, where they are not wanted due to their supposed affiliation with Islamic State.
Among them are hundreds of unaccompanied or separated children, some just babies as young as five months, according to aid groups and other sources.
To ease potential tension among the many groups, the foreign nationals hailing from countries as varied as Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Somalia and Trinidad and Tobago have been segregated into separate annexes in two of the three camps, which include Ain Issa, al-Roj and the severely overcrowded al-Hawl centre, where Shamima Begums baby son died just under a fortnight ago.
The message that they are not wanted is growing stronger, said Unicefs regional director for the Middle East, Geert Cappelaere. They are not wanted in the camp. They are often not wanted in their countries of origin, still waiting for third countries to come forward and offer resettlement.
Up to 5,000 children in the camps are believed to be foreign nationals, according to Save the Childrens Syria response director Sonia Khush, a figure that does not include Iraqi children. But the exact numbers are difficult to assess, said Khush, due to the sheer number of people arriving every day.
Keeping track of unaccompanied children is extremely difficult, as they are often passed from family to family.
Some 58,000 newcomers 90% of them women and children have arrived in the past three months alone, many of them from the last Isis enclave of Baghuz, said Ghassan Mediah, who heads the Unicef field office near al-Hawl, close to the Iraq border. There have been 123 deaths, including 108 children, on the way to al-Hawl camp or soon after arriving, according to the International Rescue Committee.
The number of arrivals has inundated aid agencies, which are struggling to provide adequate housing, food and medical and educational support. Hygiene standards are so poor the camp administration is now worried about an outbreak of dysentery, and the overcrowded conditions have led to fires caused by cooking and heating stoves, which have killed at least two children in the last week.
The families arrive after a seven-hour drive in the back of filthy trucks normally used for transporting animals and through sub-zero temperatures, said Mediah. The infants who have died en route to the camp or on the way to the hospital were suffering from hypothermia and malnutrition of significant concern, he added.
A high number of the new arrivals are pregnant and some have been giving birth during the journey, adding to the complicated medical needs of the camps population.
The children are sick, injured, hungry, cold, malnourished and, above all, traumatised, said Mediah. One thousand people arrived just the other night. Four infants died on the way here or en route to hospital. Probably around 300 children had cases of complicated and severe malnutrition. They are also traumatised by what they have seen. These children have never lived a normal childhood, so we are still figuring out what kind of psycho-social support to provide them.
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