GENEVA - The U.N. refugee agency says thousands of civilians caught in fighting between Islamic State militants and U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Forces in northeastern Syria's Deir-el-Zour governorate are facing deplorable conditions.
More than 23,000 people have fled to al-Hol camp since fighting escalated in early December, with more than 10,000 entering the camp just this week, the UNHCR reports.
UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said people who survive the harrowing journey through harsh winter conditions are arriving at the camp with barely any belongings. They are cold and hungry, he added, and receive little or no aid along the way.
The UNHCR has asked the SDF, who are in control of the area, to designate a transit site on the route to al-Hol, where people can receive life-saving assistance. Mahecic told VOA that the group has not responded to the request.
"The humanitarian situation in this part of Syria is critical right now," he said. "That is why we are appealing for the safety of the civilians — their ability to move out of the conflict zone, to be aided, and to be … provided with basic shelter and life-saving assistance."
Mahecic says people arriving at al-Hol, the vast majority of whom are women and children, are malnourished and suffering from hypothermia. Since early December, he says at least 29 young children and newborns have died while on their journey or shortly after their arrival.
The UNHCR spokesman says his agency also is increasingly worried for the safety of civilians trapped in IS-held areas of Hajin enclave in Deir-el-Zour. He says people who have fled to the al-Hol camp say fighting in the governorate is fierce, with many civilian casualties. They say food and medicine is in short supply, and civilian infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed.