Thousands more Afghans can resettle in U.S. as refugees, says State Dept

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Thousands more Afghans who may be targets of Taliban violence due to their U.S. affiliations will have the opportunity to resettle as refugees in the United States under a new program announced by the State Department on Monday.

Reuters exclusively reported on plans to set up the “Priority Two” refugee program, covering Afghans who worked for U.S.-funded projects and for U.S.-based non-government bodies and media outlets, earlier on Monday.

“In light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the U.S. government is working to provide certain Afghans, including those who worked with the United States, the opportunity for refugee resettlement to the United States,” the State Department said in the announcement.

“This designation expands the opportunity to permanently resettle in the United States to many thousands of Afghans and their immediate family members who may be at risk.”

The announcement of the program comes as fighting surges in Afghanistan ahead of the formal completion of the U.S. troop withdrawal at the end of this month, with the Taliban pushing to capture key provincial capitals.

U.S. President Joe Biden has faced pressure from lawmakers and advocacy groups to aid Afghans at risk of Taliban retaliation because of their association with the United States during the 20-year war.

Those who worked as employees of contractors, locally employed staff and interpreters and translators for the U.S. government or armed forces are eligible for the new designation, as well as Afghans employed by a U.S.-based media organization or non-governmental organization (NGO), the State Department said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will deliver remarks on the program at 2 p.m. (1800 GMT), the department said.

The new program for Afghans requires applicants to be referred by a U.S. agency or for the senior-most U.S. citizen employee of an NGO or media organization headquartered in the United States.

Once they have applied, they will be contacted by email to let them know they are in the system and will then have to make their own way out of Afghanistan to a third country, a senior State Department official said.

The process from that point involves security screening and can take from 12 to 14 months, said the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.

“We’ve already been in discussion with neighboring countries, as well as (the U.N. refugee agency), to be prepared for potential outflows,” said another official who briefed reporters, adding that it was important that Pakistan’s borders with Afghanistan remained open, while others might travel to Turkey via Iran.

That requirement differs from an existing refugee program for Iraqis, which allows Iraqis to apply directly but has been indefinitely suspended while U.S. officials pursue a sweeping fraud investigation.

The Priority Two program applies to Afghans who do not qualify for the Special Immigration Visa (SIV) program that covers interpreters and others who worked for the U.S. government, and their families.

About 200 SIV applicants whose visas are in the final stages of processing and family members flew into the United States last week at the start of an evacuation effort dubbed “Operation Allies Refuge” that could include as many as 50,000 people or more.

A second plane carrying several hundred more Afghan SIV applicants arrived overnight in the United States and they will join the first arrivals at Fort Lee, Virginia, a U.S. official said on Monday.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert, Ted Hesson, Jonathan Landay and Idrees Ali, Simon Lewis and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Timothy Heritage, Giles Elgood and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. Senate passes $2.1 billion emergency funds for Capitol Police, Afghans

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate on Thursday approved emergency funding to replenish the Capitol Police and bolster security after the Jan. 6 riot by supporters of then-President Donald Trump and to evacuate Afghans who helped American forces from their country.

The $2.1 billion bill was passed by the Senate by a vote of 98-0. The House of Representatives, which previously passed its own $1.9 billion bill, was planning to promptly approve the Senate version, which would clear the way for President Joe Biden to sign it into law.

The bill would provide $521 million to reimburse National Guard units deployed for months to the Capitol following the riot and $300 million for increased security measures at the site. It also would provide $71 million for the Capitol Police to cover overtime costs, hire new officers and other expenses and $35.4 million for that force’s mutual-aid agreements with other law enforcement jurisdictions to help in emergencies.

Without fast action, “Capitol Police funding will be depleted literally in a number of weeks,” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said.

About half the money approved by the Senate would go toward evacuating Afghans who assisted U.S. military forces in Afghanistan over the past two decades, as America draws down its mission there.

Leahy said the money will pay for expanding the number of special U.S. visas for translators and other Afghans who worked for U.S. forces there and to provide humanitarian aid for an anticipated rush of migrants seeking refuge outside of Afghanistan.

The funding includes “humanitarian aid for the inevitable flood of Afghans fleeing to neighboring countries. The United Nations has estimated that could swell to 500,000 refugees in just the next few months,” Leahy said.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Will Dunham)

Thailand denies forcing back Myanmar refugees blocked at border

By Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat

MAE SARIANG, Thailand (Reuters) – Thai authorities on Monday denied forcing back more than 2,000 refugees who had fled air strikes in Myanmar, but a local official said it was government policy for the army to block them at the border and deny access to outside aid groups.

Thousands of people fled Myanmar over the weekend after fighter jets attacked villages near the border held by a force from the Karen ethnic group that had attacked a military post in the wake of a Feb. 1 coup by Myanmar’s army.

Mark Farmaner, head of Burma Campaign UK, told Reuters that thousands of people had been forced to return to the Ee Thu Hta displacement camp on the Myanmar side of the border. Another activist group gave the number as 2,009.

Video shot by a Karen villager and published by Reuters showed refugees boarding boats under the watch of Thai soldiers.

“Look, Thai soldiers told villagers to go back. Here, see old people have to go back. Look there, there are lots of Thai soldiers,” a Karen villager is heard saying. Authorities stopped Reuters reporters from accessing the area.

Thichai Jindaluang, governor of Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, told reporters the refugees were not being pushed back. They were in a safe place on the fringes of the border in Mae Sariang and Sop Moei districts, state media reported.

“Thai authorities will continue to look after those on the Thai side while assessing the evolving situation and the needs on the ground,” foreign ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat said in a statement, also saying the reports that the Karens had been pushed back were inaccurate.

“BLOCK THOSE THAT FLED”

But Sangkhom Khadchiangsaen, chief of Mae Sariang District, told a local meeting that those fleeing should be blocked.

“All agencies should follow the policy of the National Security Council which is we need to block those that fled and maintain them along the border,” he said, referring to the government’s security coordinating body.

“The military has the main responsibility in managing the situation on the ground and we must not allow officials from UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), NGOs or other international organizations to have direct contact and communication. This is absolutely forbidden.”

Tanee told Reuters he had no further comment on what the local official had said.

The UNHCR did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Human rights groups and the European Karen Network, a foreign based support group, criticized the Thai government.

“Thailand’s heartless and illegal act must stop now,” said Sunai Phasuk, senior researcher on Thailand for Human Rights Watch.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said earlier on Monday the government was prepared to accept refugees and rebuffed claims that Thailand was supporting Myanmar’s junta.

Myanmar security forces have killed at least 459 people since seizing power as it seeks to crush mass protests, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

The army, which has waged decades of wars against ethnic armed groups, carried out its coup saying that November elections won by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s party were fraudulent, an assertion dismissed by the election commission.

(Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat, Poppy McPherson and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in Bangkok; Editing by Alex Richardson, Nick Macfie, William Maclean)

Biden set to accept more refugees

By Steve Holland and Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden will issue an executive order to build up the country’s capacity to accept refugees, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said during a White House briefing on Thursday, but the timing of the action remains unclear.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said later in the briefing that she did not expect Biden to issue the order on Thursday, but that Biden is “committed to looking for ways to ensure more refugees are welcomed into the United States.”

Biden has pledged to restore the United States’ historic role as a country that welcomes refugees from around the world after four years of cuts to admissions under former U.S. President Donald Trump. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are 1.4 million refugees worldwide in urgent need of resettlement.

During his presidency, Trump portrayed refugees as a security threat and a drain on U.S. communities as he took a series of measures to restrict legal immigration. The Biden administration is confronting a refugee program hobbled by Trump’s hardline policies, which led to the closure of resettlement offices and disrupted the pipeline of refugees to the United States, a situation exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden was expected to issue the refugee order in conjunction with a speech on Thursday at the U.S. State Department that aims to reinvigorate the workforce there, but the order was delayed, according to one person familiar with the plan. The reason for the delay was not clear.

Biden vowed on the campaign trail to raise the annual refugee ceiling to 125,000, up from a record-low 15,000 set by Trump for this fiscal year.

Biden eventually plans to raise refugee levels this year, but the target will be lower than his goal of 125,000, according to two people familiar with the matter.

(Reporting by Alexandra Alper, Steve Holland and Ted Hesson in Washington, Editing by Franklin Paul and Aurora Ellis)

Aid coming to north Ethiopia, refugees recount war suffering

ADDIS ABABA/HAMDAYET, Sudan (Reuters) – Relief agencies in Ethiopia prepared convoys on Thursday to truck aid into Tigray region, where a month of war is feared to have killed thousands of people and has forced refugees to flee along corpse-strewn roads.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared victory over the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) after federal forces captured the northern region’s capital Mekelle at the weekend.

However, TPLF leaders have dug into surrounding mountains in an emerging guerrilla strategy. “The war is a people’s war and will not end easily,” its spokesman Gebre Gebretsadkan said on Tigray TV, adding that fighting had continued round Mekelle.

One aid worker in touch with Tigray said clashes had been taking place to the north, south and west of the city. The government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Diplomats in touch with sources on all sides say thousands of combatants and civilians appear to have died since Abiy’s offensive began on Nov. 4, after a TPLF attack on a military base was the last straw in their feud.

More than 45,000 refugees have crossed into neighboring Sudan, while many more have been displaced within Tigray.

One refugee, who gave his name only as Abraham, saw corpses in civilian clothes as he fled the Tigrayan town of Humera towards the border with Sudan.

“Nobody can bury them, they were outside on the road,” he recounted from Hamdayet, a Sudanese border transit point.

WAR CHILD

Ethiopia’s government and the TPLF have both accused each other of – and both denied – targeting civilians.

The TPLF said it had destroyed government tanks and accused Eritrea of deploying troops to back Abiy. Eritrea’s government could not be reached for comment but has previously denied that.

Claims from all sides have been hard to verify while access to Tigray region was blocked and communications largely down, though internet and phone services were returning this week.

In Qadarif, also in Sudan, the mother of a newborn baby recounted how she had fled Tigray at eight months pregnant.

“While I was frightened and running away, that’s when the pain started,” said Atikilti Salem, breastfeeding her 22-day-old baby Abeyam.

“I found a small village and gave birth in the hospital … I wanted to call her Africa, but I instead named her after the doctor who delivered her … When the war is over … I’m going to tell her the story of how she was born.”

Ethiopian authorities and the United Nations agreed to move humanitarian aid into federal government-controlled areas of Tigray. Some 600,000 people relied on food handouts even before the fighting.

Food stocks are nearly empty for 96,000 Eritrean refugees in Tigray, aid agencies say, while medics in Mekelle are short of painkillers, gloves and body bags.

“There’s an acute shortage of food, medicine and other relief,” tweeted Norwegian Refugee Council head Jan Egeland, saying relief convoys were ready to go.

Tigray’s new government-appointed leader Mulu Nega said help was on its way to areas of west Tigray including Humera.

REFORM SETBACK?

The first video from Mekelle since its capture on Saturday, from state-run ETV, showed people shopping and sitting on stools.

“Life is getting back to normal … Everything is, as you can see, very peaceful,” one man said in the footage which Reuters could not independently verify.

Tigrayans have strongly supported the TPLF and seen them as war heroes from the 1991 overthrow of a Marxist dictatorship.

Analysts fear that Abiy’s political reforms, after he took office in 2018, could be set back by the conflict, and his tougher line against foes including jailing opposition figures this year.

He became prime minister after nearly three decades of TPLF-led government that had become increasingly repressive.

Abiy, who comes from the larger Oromo and Amharic ethnic groups, reduced Tigrayans from government and security posts, saying they were over-represented for a group making up 6% of the population.

The TPLF accuses their ex-military comrade and government coalition partner of trying to increase his personal power over Ethiopia’s 10 regions. Abiy denies that, calling them criminals who mutinied against federal authority.

(Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom, David Lewis and Nazanine Moshiri in Nairobi, Maggie Fick in Istanbul, Seham Eloraby and Baz Ratner in Ahmdayet, Sudan; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Locked out by COVID, refugees’ lives on hold

By Edward McAllister

DAKAR (Reuters) – When Michelle Alfaro left her office at the United Nations in Geneva on March 13, her job finding homes for the world’s most vulnerable refugees was under control.

Four days later, the new coronavirus had knocked it into chaos. Governments across the world announced border closures, lockdowns and flight cancellations. The United Nations was forced to suspend the program.

“Everything collapsed that week,” said Alfaro, who manages resettlements for the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR.

Millions of people have been thrown into limbo by the new coronavirus. Those Alfaro works with had been promised escape from war, violence, conflict or persecution. After submitting to a review process that can take years, and winning a chance to make new lives in countries such as the United States and Canada, thousands suddenly learned – often by phone – their flights would no longer take off.

Ubah Mohamed was one of them. A 23-year-old Somalian, she ran away from her husband after he tried to force her to join the Islamist group al Shabaab, militants who would later kill her father. She was due to fly to the United Kingdom on March 24.

“I didn’t know where I was going,” she said of her five-year ordeal as a refugee. “I was just going. I had no control.”

In the first half of 2020, refugee resettlements fell 69% from 2019 levels to just over 10,000, U.N. data show. The program resumed in June, but at a much slower pace.

The pandemic has hit as attitudes to immigrants have been hardening, loosening another thread in increasingly frayed international efforts to maintain global solidarity.

Nationalism, fear of infection, economic worries and ageing voters’ resistance to change are undermining a long-established post-war consensus that people at risk of persecution, abuse or violence deserve to be sheltered.

The British government this month asked the armed forces to help deal with a rise in the number of boats carrying migrants from France. In Greece, the government has rebuffed thousands of migrants from Turkey this year and stiffened patrols to stop refugees arriving by boat. The European Union has pumped billions of dollars into African states in an attempt to stem the flow of migrants to its southern shores.

The United States rehouses the largest share of refugees in the program, which in recent years has accounted for the majority of U.S. refugee intake. Arrivals under the program have more than halved under President Donald Trump, who came to power in 2017 on an anti-immigration platform and is running for re-election promising more of the same. America accepted one-third of the refugees resettled by the United Nations last year, but is cutting its intake.

The United States stopped taking refugees from March 19 until July 29 because of travel restrictions, a State Department spokesperson told Reuters. As a result, the country resettled fewer than 3,000 people under the U.N. program in the first half of 2020, compared with over 21,000 during the whole of last year, the data show.

Even before COVID-19, the United Nations says it struggled to raise funds and find new homes for the 1.4 million people it estimates need immediate help.

“It has been an especially difficult year for refugees,” said Alfaro, the resettlement officer. “Every single resettlement country we have has been affected – no one is left unscathed.”

NO CONTROL

Mohamed, the 23-year-old Somalian, is stranded 2,000 miles south of Geneva in a refugee camp on a sandy plain outside Niger’s capital Niamey. The mother of two, who shelters in a small tent-like structure in the U.N.’s Hamdallaye camp, was told by UNHCR officials just days before leaving that her flight was off.

“I was so excited to go,” she said in a phone interview with Reuters. “I live in a tent. If I can live in a home in a safe place, I will be satisfied.”

Her journey started in 2015, on a bus to the coastal city of Bosaso, after her father told her the safest thing she could do would be to get away from her husband and leave her children behind.

A man offered her a place on a boat across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen – a common route for Somalians seeking refuge from conflict over the decades. By accepting, she unwittingly entered a network of migrant smugglers that would rob, rape and sell her from Yemen to Sudan to Libya.

Just days into her journey, she said she called her father to let him know where she was. Her step-mother answered the phone and told her the militants had killed him for helping her escape.

In southern Libya, a smuggler raped her repeatedly. She miscarried his child in the spring of 2016. He discarded her and she continued north.

Later that year, at a halfway house for migrants in northern Libya, another smuggler beat her when she told him she did not have enough money for her travel.

Crossing the Sahara Desert from Sudan to Libya in an open-back pick-up truck in 2016, sipping water that tasted of petrol, her mind was flooded with thoughts of her children. She thinks they are with family.

“I don’t know where they are,” she said. “I am a mother, and I cannot be with them. All I can do is cry.”

She married a fellow Somalian refugee in northern Libya in 2017. The smugglers’ network funneled them towards Europe. They were separated just before she boarded an overcrowded dinghy which broke down and drifted on the Mediterranean for days.

There, the Libyan Coast Guard picked her up and handed her over to the U.N. refugee agency and she was reunited with her husband at a migrant detention centre a few days later. The U.N. flew them from Tripoli to Niamey and moved them into the camp in March 2019, where the resettlement assessment began.

“I wanted to forget everything I had been through,” she said.

She said she has not received any information about when she will leave for the United Kingdom. It has suspended resettlements indefinitely because of flight restrictions and limits to its own visa application services during the pandemic, a Home Office spokeswoman told Reuters. It wants to be sure that resuming arrivals does not pose a public health risk.

“We are not in a position to resume arrivals in the immediate short term,” she said.

The United Nations said it does not comment on specific cases.

CAJOLING COUNTRIES

Alfaro’s employer, UNHCR, has been resettling refugees since the 1950’s when it found new homes for 170,000 who escaped the Hungarian Revolution. Over the past 25 years, it says it has helped one million people out of the world’s trouble spots including Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Myanmar. Dozens of countries receive refugees under the program.

The UNHCR identifies those most in need through interviews and refers them to a receiving country, which conducts its own assessments. Another U.N. agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), makes the travel arrangements.

When COVID-19 hit, receiving countries evacuated embassy staff, so U.N. officials could no longer reach them to help organize departures or process new referrals. Several countries told the United Nations they were suspending all or part of their refugee intake.

Local officials, confined by lockdowns, have been unavailable to stamp exit visas. House-bound U.N. field staff can’t interview applicants. Officials from receiving countries have been unable to reach applicants for face-to-face interviews because of travel restrictions.

In March, Alfaro’s days disappeared on long conference calls and briefings as she tried to persuade governments to keep their borders open to emergency cases, and to accept online interviews for new referrals.

A few hundred critical cases were resettled during the suspension, Alfaro said; some countries have agreed to video interviews. But others, including the United States, still require them to be conducted in person. The United States has taken in refugees at a far slower pace than pre-COVID levels, the State Department spokesperson said: There are still “few or no flights available” from many of the countries who send them.

Staff at the IOM have been scouring airline booking systems for ways to get emergency cases moving, even during the suspension. Flights would appear and then be cancelled.

In all, the agency cancelled 11,000 plane tickets because of the pandemic, said Rana Jaber, its head of resettlements, who worked with refugees in Iraq from 2015 to 2017.

“I felt like I was in Iraq again,” she said. “My lord, my brains were fried.”

SPACES LOST

Because of the slowdown in interviews, global referrals dropped from 40,000 to 20,000 in the first half of the year, the U.N. data show. This means a backlog of tens of thousands of people is building, and there’s a risk these places will be lost indefinitely.

Now refugees are falling victim to COVID-19. In Iraq, Alfaro said the UNHCR is looking after a “significant number” of refugees with urgent medical needs who are unable to be resettled because of travel restrictions. At least two people have died of COVID-19 while awaiting the move.

In Uganda, COVID-19 has spread through slums of the capital Kampala where many who await resettlement are housed in crowded accommodations with no running water or electricity, aid workers said.

The U.N. has resettled about 2,100 refugees since resuming flights – way below the average pace of previous years, said the IOM’s Jaber. Cancellations continue.

“Some are opening up, but not everyone is back online – maybe not until next year,” said Alfaro. “We don’t know how many spaces we’re going to lose.”

There have been bright spots. An Eritrean couple with a young baby were the first refugees to be resettled to Europe since flights were stopped in March, UNHCR said on Twitter on Aug. 14.

Just hours after a vast explosion devastated much of Lebanon’s capital Beirut on Aug. 4, IOM staff were back at work. The ancient city holds hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled Syria’s civil war.

That night, IOM got 30 of them on a flight out, said IOM’s Jaber. In total, 61 were relocated that week.

“There are challenges still,” she said. “We are back, it is slower, (but) it is working.”

(Reporting By Edward McAllister; Edited by Sara Ledwith)

Cheap and creative ideas to protect world’s most vulnerable from coronavirus

By Sonia Elks

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From handwashing stations to digital advice hubs, initiatives are underway to protect the world’s most vulnerable people from the global coronavirus epidemic.

While richer nations rush to bolster their health systems to cope, poorer nations with fewer resources are likely to struggle and suffer worse impacts, said humanitarian organisations, with refugee camps and war zones facing some of the worst risks.

“Refugees, families displaced from their homes, and those living in crisis will be hit the hardest by this outbreak,” David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a charity working in more than 40 countries.

“As the world struggles to deal with the fallout of COVID-19 across its richest nations, the needs of the most vulnerable must not be neglected or forgotten,” he said in a statement.

COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, emerged in China late last year and has infected more than 200,000 people and killed 9,000, according to a global tally kept by Johns Hopkins University.

Aid groups have warned of potentially devastating effects if the virus takes hold in refugee camps which often house huge numbers of people in cramped temporary shelters, or in countries in conflict like Yemen where health systems have collapsed.

URGENT ACTION

A range of projects are being launched to provide lifesaving facilities and information, as lockdowns and border closures pinch key supply chains and create new barriers to reaching those at risk.

A multi-million dollar fund has been set up to help the World Health Organization respond to coronavirus, with priority given to more vulnerable countries with weaker health systems.

With hygiene seen as a key first line of defence, health authorities and aid groups such as Oxfam are delivering extra soap, handwashing stations and other sanitation facilities to high-risk areas including refugee camps.

In Bangladesh, which recorded its first coronavirus death on Wednesday, women volunteers are educating people living in the world’s largest refugee camp about hygiene. There have been no cases in the camp so far.

Aid groups are also turning to digital channels to share key health messages and support in global coronavirus hotspots.

And after lockdowns disrupted in-person support groups in China, the charity World Vision turned to social platforms including Weibo and WhatsApp to stay in touch with families with child-friendly health messages and advice.

“We need to be thinking creatively and using these low-cost digital messages,” Erica Van Deren, senior program manager at World Vision, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“As people are doing social distancing and staying at home, as governments are putting restrictions up around gathering, people are turning to social media and to their phones for information.”

Social enterprises and community groups have also helped to tackle shortages, from supplying face masks and soap to picking up shopping for elderly neighbours self-isolating at home.

As coronavirus hits economies, the poorest are likely to feel the longer-lasting effects, said Juliet Parker, director of operations at Action Against Hunger UK.

“Aside from the immediate impact on health facilities, which could be overwhelming, there is the longer-term impact this could have on poverty levels,” she said, citing the possible impact on Africa, the world’s poorest continent.

“It’s too early to say what the scale of this might be, but it is conceivable that the humanitarian needs in some countries could increase if the price or demand for African exports is affected.”

(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

No place to go: Syrian families fleeing Idlib stranded on the roads

By Khalil Ashawi

AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) – Abu Abdallah has been on the road for days. After his family fled the air strikes pounding Idlib, they moved from one village to another in northwest Syria but have yet to find refuge.

“I don’t know where to take them,” the 49-year-old farmer said from his tractor on the side of a road in Azaz town, where he is stranded with his wife, four children and 20 other relatives. “This is the first time I flee my hometown. God knows where we will go.”

The family is part of the biggest exodus of Syria’s nine-year war.

Nearly a million people, mostly women and children, are trying to escape the latest wave of violence in the Idlib region, overwhelming aid agencies.

Many have nowhere to go, trapped between the fighting and the closed-off Turkish border. Families sleep outside in streets and olive groves, burning garbage to stay warm. Some children have died from the cold.

Some of the people fleeing Idlib have already been displaced more than once, after fleeing battles in other parts of Syria earlier in the conflict.

The United Nations said on Tuesday that government warplanes had struck hospitals and refugee camps as the Syrian army, with Russian backing, gains ground in the northwest, the country’s last rebel stronghold.

Before she escaped Idlib in recent days, Aziza Hadaja, 70, locked her front door.

It is the third time she has been uprooted, but in the past, she would go back home. This time, after government forces marched into her village, she does not know when or if she will return.

Along with her children and grandchildren, Hadaja is now sheltering in a makeshift tent in a field on the road out of Azaz further north.

“We came out with the clothes on our backs,” she said. “We didn’t bring a thing.”

(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Syria; Writing by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Syria displacement is worst since conflict began: U.N.

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – More people have fled fighting in Syria over the past 10 weeks than at any other time in the 9-year-old conflict and the city of Idlib, where many are sheltering, could become a graveyard if hostilities continue, two U.N. agencies said on Tuesday.

Syrian government forces are shelling their way northwards, backed by Russian air strikes, driving people toward the Turkish border as they try to seize remaining rebel strongholds near Idlib and Aleppo.

Turkey, which backs the rebels and is fearful of additional refugees, has retaliated militarily, with displaced civilians caught in between.

“It’s the fastest growing displacement we have ever seen in the country,” Jens Laerke from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said, adding that nearly 700,000 people had fled since December, mostly women and children.

Another 280,000 people could flee from urban centers if fighting continues, including from the city of Idlib, which is packed with people who have escaped fighting elsewhere and which has not yet seen a full military assault on its center.

“It has the world’s largest concentration of displaced people and urgently need a cessation of hostilities so as not to turn it into a graveyard,” Laerke added.

Of Syria’s 17 million people, 5.5 million are living as refugees in the region, mostly in Turkey, and a further six million are uprooted within their own country.

Civilians are struggling to find shelter, amid harsh winter conditions with snow, rain and wind from Storm Ciara. Mosques are full and makeshift camps are overcrowded, said Andrej Mahecic, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency.

“Even finding a place in an unfinished building has become nearly impossible,” he told journalists in Geneva, describing the humanitarian crisis as “increasingly desperate”.

OCHA has sent 230 trucks over two authorized border crossings in Turkey so far this month, containing food, water and hygiene equipment, Laerke added. Last month, 1,227 trucks were shipped in the biggest cross-border aid operation there since the operation started in 2014.

The U.N. Security Council renewed a six-month program delivering aid to civilians in January but stopped crossings from Iraq and Jordan to avoid a veto from Russia which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Aid workers say that is restricting their ability to help the displaced.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Erdogan says Turkey may launch Syria offensive if Idlib attacks continue

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey may launch a military operation in Syria’s northwestern Idlib region unless fighting there is quickly halted, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday as attacks by Syrian government forces risked a new wave of refugees.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air power, have made rapid advances in Idlib, the last major rebel-held stronghold in Syria’s nearly nine-year war, in an offensive which has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

The recent campaign has also raised tensions between Ankara and Moscow, which back opposing sides in the conflict.

Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million refugees from Syria, fears a fresh wave of migrants from Idlib. It has 12 military observation posts around Idlib, set up under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran, and several of them have since been surrounded by advancing Syrian government forces.

Erdogan accuses Russia of violating agreements to reduce the fighting in Idlib, a charge Moscow denied on Friday. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Idlib was a haven for militants targeting Syrian troops and a Russian airbase in Syria.

Speaking in Ankara, Erdogan repeated Turkey could not handle a fresh influx of migrants and would not allow new threats near its borders, even if it meant resorting to military power as it did in three previous cross-border operations in northern Syria.

“We will do what is necessary when someone is threatening our soil. We will have no choice but to resort to the same path again if the situation in Idlib is not returned to normal quickly,” Erdogan said.

He also appeared to hold out the option of another operation in northeastern Syria, where in October Ankara targeted the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia that it calls a terrorist group.

“We will not refrain from doing what is necessary, including using military force,” he said, adding Turkey wants stability and security in Syria.

Later on Friday, the Kremlin said Russia was fully compliant with its obligations in Idlib, but that it was deeply concerned about what it said were aggressive militant attacks on Syrian government forces and Russia’s Hmeimim air base.

Turkey, which has backed rebels fighting to oust Assad, has repeatedly called for Assad to step down, even while Iran, Russia and Turkey have said they seek a political solution to the conflict.

“We will not allow the regime to put our country under the constant threat of migrants by tormenting, attacking, spilling the blood of… its people,” Erdogan said.

(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul and Alexander Marrow in Moscow; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Dominic Evans, Jonathan Spicer and Hugh Lawson)