During Operation Olive Branch alone, about 200,000 people were displaced from Afrin. Over the course of the Turkish occupation, tens of thousands more fled, and today, virtually all of the city’s original population is gone. Some of Afrin’s displaced people traveled to other areas of Syria controlled by the Autonomous Administration, while others went to Shahba, where refugee camps were established to accommodate them. A smaller number went to Syrian government-controlled towns near Shahba.
According to a report from the Democratic Autonomous Administration of Afrin, 109,212 displaced persons from Afrin were in Shahba as of mid-2018, and between 20,000 and 30,000 had gone on to government-controlled Nubul and Zehra. About 50,000 went to Aleppo, and 5,000 to Manbij.
A Dangerous Journey
Civilians who attempted to flee Afrin during the invasion faced bombardment and shelling from both Turkish and rebel forces, with at least 13 people killed on the journey out of the region. There was no reliable access to food, water, or shelter as civilians fled, and most were forced to sleep outside along the roads.
Those who attempted to leave after occupying forces had taken full control of the city often faced arbitrary detentions, torture, and extortion. One Afrin resident who attempted to flee the city in mid-2018 described being stopped and detained along with a group of nearly 30 others. The detainees were brought to a Free Syrian Army-run prison near the Turkish border, where they were held for nearly two months.
Conditions in Shahba
Shahba is a small region south of Afrin that was liberated from ISIS in 2016. Much of its infrastructure had been destroyed in the fighting, and mines left by ISIS continue to pose a threat to civilians. Access to food, water, and electricity was inconsistent for existing residents even prior to the arrival of displaced people.
Some displaced Afrin residents settled in partially destroyed buildings in various villages across Shahba, including schools, mosques, and factories. Others moved into refugee camps. Three main camps were established in Shahba for displaced Afrin residents: Afrin, Serdem, and Berxwedan.
One of the greatest challenges facing Afrin’s displaced people is a lack of basic humanitarian aid and medical care. Preventable diseases are common in the camps, especially among children and the elderly. Newborn babies have died due to a lack of adequate specialized care. The nearest hospital in government-controlled territory requires patients to pass through checkpoints, causing dangerous delays that can make otherwise treatable injuries fatal. In addition, patients crossing into government territory must travel unaccompanied, regardless of age or condition.
Afrin’s former Autonomous Administration has organized new institutions in the camps to provide for displaced people. The Kurdish Red Crescent, along with medical workers who were themselves displaced from Afrin, has established field hospitals and medical points with the limited supplies available. Schools have been established so that displaced children can continue their education, but these schools lack adequate textbooks and materials, and classes are held in tents that lack heat in the winter and cooling mechanisms in summer.
Prospects for Return
Some of Afrin’s displaced residents have attempted to return to the region, often in an effort to protect homes, businesses, and other property from widespread looting at the hands of occupying forces. These individuals, like those attempting to flee the area, have also faced arbitrary detentions and torture. Most are only able to escape detention if they are able to pay exorbitant ransoms demanded by occupying militias. Human rights monitors have not been able to find Afrin residents who have been compensated for their lost or stolen property, or who have been able to recover property from militias or settlers in the region.
Serdem Camp: The official page for Serdem Camp, one of the three autonomously run refugee camps for displaced Afrin residents.
Kurdish Red Crescent (Heyva Sor a Kurdistanê): The Kurdish Red Crescent is the only humanitarian organization that has been able to access the Shahba camps and provide aid there.
The following reports were compiled by the Democratic Autonomous Administration of Afrin, the Kurdish Red Crescent, and other local sources.