More people fled fighting in Syria over the past 10 weeks than at any other time in the nine-year-old conflict and Idlib, where many shelter could become a graveyard if hostilities continue, two UN agencies said.
Syrian government forces are shelling their way northwards, backed by Russian air strikes, driving people towards the Turkish border as seize remaining rebel strongholds near Idlib and Aleppo.
Turkey, which backs the rebels and is fearful of additional refugees, retaliated, with displaced civilians caught in between.
“It’s the fastest growing displacement we have ever seen in the country,” Jens Laerke from the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said, adding 700 000 people, mostly women and children fled since December.
Another 280 000 people could flee urban centres if fighting continues, including from Idlib, packed with people who escaped fighting elsewhere and which has not yet seen a full military assault.
“It has the world’s largest concentration of displaced people and urgently needs a cessation of hostilities not to become a graveyard,” Laerke added.
Of Syria’s 17 million people, 5.5 million live as refugees, mostly in Turkey and a further six million are uprooted in their own country.
Civilians struggle 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 UN refugee agency.
“Even finding place in an unfinished building is nearly impossible,” he told journalists in Geneva, describing the humanitarian crisis as “increasingly desperate”.
OCHA sent 230 trucks over two authorised border crossings in Turkey to date, containing food, water and hygiene equipment, Laerke added. Last month, 1 227 trucks took part in the biggest cross-border aid operation since 2014.
The UN Security Council renewed a six-month programme 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 restricts their ability to help the displaced.