As the battle for the city of Raqqa ends, aid organisations and activists are calling attention to what appears to be the most significant humanitarian crisis of Syria’s six-year civil war.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from the northern city, which was ISIL’s de facto capital of its self-declared caliphate.
Eighty per cent of the city was destroyed, according to some estimates, and many of the displaced are living in rudimentary camps outside Raqqa, where access to the most basic services is limited.
Nonetheless, tens of thousands of Syrians are reported to be joining those already displaced as fighting intensifies around the city of Deir Ezzor, about 140 kilometres southeast of Raqqa.
An International Committee of the Red Cross in Damascus spokeswoman said that an ICRC delegation visiting one camp on Tuesday found that its population had more than quadrupled since August.
“The number has gone from 6,000 to 26,000,” said Ingy Sedky, referring to the Arisha camp near the city of Hasaka, about 200 kilometres east of Raqqa.
“There are an additional 7,000 people waiting for a place to stay. They are waiting in the open without shelter, without tents and without access to basic needs.”
She said that 15 buses carrying people were arriving in the space of an hour.
“The increase in the number is beyond the ability of any actor to respond,” Ms Sedky said.
“The Syrian Arab Red Crescent and ICRC have been able to provide bottles of water for the people who are waiting, and we will begin very soon trucking in water.
“We have been sending some supplies, including food and winter clothes, also mattresses, but we have not been able to begin distribution.”
Save the Children, a non-governmental organisation, echoes the ICRC’s concerns, saying that some 270,000 people who left Raqqa were in critical need of aid and the camps are “bursting at the seams”.
“With high levels of destruction reported in and around Raqqa, most families have little or nothing to return home to and will likely be stuck in camps for months or years to come,” it said in a statement released on Tuesday. “In addition, more than 10,000 people a day are now fleeing ongoing fighting in ISIS strongholds around Deir Ezzor.”
Save the Children also referenced the psychological damage suffered by Raqqa’s residents.
“Children in camps around Raqqa have told Save the Children of witnessing executions and decapitations, seeing friends and relatives blown up by landmines, and homes reduced to rubble by bombing,” the statement said.
Abdulkarim Al Huaidi, who is involved in humanitarian aid projects, said there was not enough organisation to cover the needs of civilians.
“The water network has been destroyed because of bombing,” he said. “No hospitals can deal with the number of injured.”
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, more than 1,000 civilians had been killed since June, along with at least 2,000 combatants.
Mr Al Huaidi expected the toll from the fighting to rise, saying: “There are still civilians under the rubble.”
The political situation is also a concern for Raqqa residents who hope to return in spite of the destruction. It was the Syrian Democratic Forces — a militia backed by US air power, artillery and advisers — that defeated ISIL.
The SDF is dominated by Syrian Kurds, many of whom have an affiliation with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that serves as the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD).
Though PYD’s exact intentions are unclear, they now control large parts of northeastern Syria and have been accused of systematically displacing Arabs. PYD advocates greater autonomy for Syrian Kurds, who make up about 10 per cent of the country’s population and have been oppressed for decades by the country’s Baathist government.
“I expect to come back to Raqqa after six months and work politically against PYD and YPG,” Mr Al Huaidi said.
Others from Raqqa went further, referring to the People’s Protection Units and the Syrian Democratic Forces as “occupiers”.
Col Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting ISIL in Iraq and Syria, put the SDF’s numbers at 57,000, about 31,000 of whom are Kurds. He acknowledged that in some cases, YPG units had been incorporated wholesale.
The SDF also controls many of the refugee camps, including Arisha.
One source, who asked to remain anonymous, said that because the SDF screens displaced Syrians waiting to enter camps under their control, as many as 40,000 additional people were waiting at SDF checkpoints for permission to enter the camps.