Providing shelter for people whose homes were damaged during the February 6 earthquake remains an ongoing challenge for NGOs in Syria.
The Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), affiliated with the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) group that controls most of the Idlib governorate, has taken on the role of coordinator to direct the response to the dozens of shelter centres that have since appeared, most of them set up in chaos.
According to a map by the SSG’s General Directorate of Humanitarian Affairs, 52 temporary shelter centres were set up in Idlib and distributed to NGOs responding to the disaster. These centres now house more than 7,500 families or around 37,500 people. Most of these centres were on publicly owned or endowment properties, such as schoolyards, parks, mosques and playgrounds. Others were old, existing encampments already housing people displaced from other parts of Syria. With the owners’ approval, some temporary shelter centres were also set up on privately owned properties.
According to statistics from the SSG’s Emergency Response Committee, as of March 02, some 10,210 families have been impacted by the earthquake. Not all of them are living in the temporary shelter centres, however. Some stay with relatives, while others erected tents near their destroyed and damaged homes.
Meanwhile, more than 690 Syrians moved from Turkey to the temporary shelter centres in Idlib as of February 26, according to the General Directorate of Humanitarian Affairs. Ankara had allowed Syrians residing in earthquake-damaged parts of Turkey to return temporarily to Syria in what has come to be known as “earthquake vacation”. According to statistics from the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing, around 15,000 Syrians crossed into Idlib on such trips as of March 01.
Of the 52 shelter centres, 23 are in Harem and its surrounding countryside, which suffered massive earthquake damage. In that city alone, 35 buildings fully collapsed, and 360 were cracked, killing around 500 people. The surrounding countryside saw the collapse of a newly-built residential project in the town of Basania, killing 200 people.
Most shelter centres lack essential services such as water, sewage and electricity. Some NGOs have resorted to providing portable bathrooms, installing tanks for drinking and cleaning water, and covering the floors of some centres with gravel. Others set up tents, pour cement floors, and dig waterways to drain sewage water.
NGOs have also given out tents, mattresses, blankets and meals in coordination with the General Directorate of Humanitarian Affairs to ensure aid reaches all the shelter centres. That said, there is a lack of coordination on the ground, with more than one NGO often distributing aid in one centre.
Notably, the price of tents has doubled in Idlib due to the huge demand from individuals and NGOs. For example, a medium-quality locally-made tent went from USD 150 to USD 350 after the earthquake. These tents are usually made locally by metalworkers who fashion the iron poles and cut the canvas and plastic insulation. The increased prices have come alongside worsened quality as workers use poorer quality canvas and plastic and employ lower manufacturing standards to keep up with demand.
The aid response has varied from one area of Idlib governorate to another. Help has still not reached the Al-Maland, Marand, Al-Najia and Badama villages in the countryside west of Jisr Al-Shughour, where residents still urgently need tents. Many of them have been forced to sleep out in the open.
It is unclear what will happen to the residents of Idlib’s temporary shelter centres in the long term and how long they will reside there. No real steps have been taken to set up new housing for them that is organised and serviced by quality infrastructure. There are also still no plans for restoring damaged homes. Many people now living in these shelters fear they will simply become new camps, added to the dozens of existing camps for forcibly displaced people who came to Idlib from elsewhere in Syria.