The United Nations said Friday that more than 140,000 civilians have been displaced from northwestern Syria in just the last three days.
An escalation in fighting across Idlib and Aleppo has pushed more than 830,000 people to flee their homes since early December, causing what the U.N. has said is the biggest humanitarian catastrophe since the conflict started in 2011. Some 3 million people live in the province.
“Women and children are among those that are suffering the most — they make up about 81% of the recently displaced people,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters. “Temperatures across northwest Syria have been below freezing for several days, leaving families exposed to increasingly harsh conditions.”
Many of the displaced are moving north toward already overcrowded camps near the Syria-Turkey border.
They are fleeing an escalation in fighting between the Syrian military, which is backed by Russia and Iran, and Syrian armed opposition groups, some of whom have Turkish support. The Syrian government is trying to crush the last major opposition strongholds.
The situation worsened this month when Syrian government forces killed 13 Turkish troops, provoking Ankara to strike back, in some of the worst confrontations between the neighbors since the conflict began nine years ago.
The fighting, along a main highway, also has severely hindered food distribution.
The World Food Program (WFP) and its partners were forced to temporarily stop distribution this week because the fighting had disrupted the movement of trucks carrying supplies into the area from Turkey.
“We are deeply concerned about the fate of thousands of families who had to leave their homes in freezing winter temperatures in search for safety in camps that are already overcrowded,” WFP regional director Muhannad Hadi said in a statement. “In Syria, civilians continue to pay the price for the ongoing conflict.”
In New York, the European Union members of the U.N. Security Council requested a closed-door meeting on the situation.
“We demand that the parties, especially the Syrian regime and its allies, immediately end their military offensive, establish a genuine and lasting cease-fire, guarantee the protection of civilians and fully adhere to international humanitarian law,” Estonia’s Ambassador Sven Jurgenson said on behalf of France, Germany, Poland and Belgium. “We call for a sustainable cease-fire and call upon the U.N. and the special envoy in particular to spare no efforts in this regard.”
U.N. Syria envoy Geir Pedersen is in Germany this week for the Munich Security Conference. He is due to brief council members next Wednesday.