UN concerned for safety of thousands fleeing Syria's Ghouta


Geneva (AFP)

The United Nations said Tuesday it was "deeply concerned" over the safety of tens of thousands of civilians fleeing Syria's Eastern Ghouta as well as the security screening procedures for those trying to leave.

As Syrian government forces have advanced on the last opposition bastion outside Damascus, some 50,000 civilians have streamed out of the enclave into areas under regime control.

"The exodus is fairly chaotic... There is ongoing bombardment. It is a warzone," UN humanitarian agency spokesman Jens Laerke told reporters in Geneva.

"We are deeply, deeply concerned for their safety," he said.

The UN refugee agency also urgently called Tuesday for the protection of those who have fled and for the hundreds of thousands of civilians still trapped by fighting who are in "dire need of aid".

UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told reporters that "the shortage of appropriate shelter is a major concern."

The agency was working around-the-clock distributing aid at makeshift collective shelters where thousands of families were arriving, "exhausted, hungry, thirsty and sick," he said.

"The needs are overwhelming and growing by the hour," he added, warning that the shelters were overcrowded and lacked basic sanitation, with those displaced forced to wait for hours to use a toilet.

He stressed the need for humanitarian actors to be given unhindered access to civilians inside and outside Eastern Ghouta.

He also urged the "full respect of the civilians' freedom of movement."

Mahecic meanwhile said his agency was "aware of, but has no access to security screening reportedly taking place as civilians leave Eastern Ghouta."

AFP reporters on the ground said they had seen men and women being searched separately as they arrived at government checkpoints near the collective shelters, while some of the displaced said their mobile phones had been confiscated.

People who could demonstrate that they have influential relatives in Damascus or were related to someone within the Syrian security forces were ushered through more quickly.

Others are being subjected to a screening that takes around a week to see if their names were on lists of people wanted by security forces or for compulsory military service, according to AFP reporters.

Mahecic said that UNHCR's partners on the ground were registering people who lacked documents, in particular unregistered newborn children, in a bid "to tackle this major protection concern with the Syrian authorities."