UN: 'Hundreds of thousands of civilians in northern Syria are now in harm's way'
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – The UN's refugee agency has warned that Turkish military operations against US-backed Kurds that began on Wednesday are creating a new wave of displacement and could substantially intensify “what is already the largest displacement crisis in the world.”
In a statement on Thursday, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) called on all sides to abide by international humanitarian law, and facilitate access for relief agencies helping those in need.
“Hundreds of thousands of civilians in northern Syria are now in harm’s way, civilians and civilian infrastructure must not be a target,” said UNHCR head Filippo Grandi.
He stressed the organization's concern for those who are caught in the middle of hostilities, especially with seasonal “lower temperatures across the region” making it even more essential that humanitarian groups will be able to “reach those newly displaced and assist them wherever this is required.”
“UNHCR also reiterates its position that any return of refugees to Syria has to be voluntary, dignified, and at a time when it is safe to return. It is up to refugees to decide if and when they wish to return.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday announced the launch of the incursion moments before Turkish warplanes and artillery began shelling Syria’s predominantly Kurdish northeastern town of Serekaniye.
Turkey justifies the assault with its security concerns regarding territories held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The military leadership of the group is provided by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) which Ankara sees as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group that has fought a decades-long insurgency against Turkey over Kurdish rights.
Turkey currently hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, predominantly Sunni Arabs, many of whom it has said it aims to resettle in a “safe zone,” along the border with Turkey.
Most of those refugees, however, are not from northeast Syria, and even if they are moved voluntarily into that area in large numbers, it will change the demography.
The UNHCR statement continued by noting that the prolonged, eight-year mass displacement of Syrians, what it calls “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” now has 5.6 million Syrians living as refugees in the region, and could become far worse as a result of the Turkish invasion.
“Furthermore, any new military campaign may lead to insecurity and chaos which could create circumstances for the resurgence of the extremist group ISIL, or Daesh [Islamic State],” it concluded.
“The last thing Syrians need now is a new wave of violence.”
Editing by John J. Catherine