Week One: Syria
In partnership with Researching Internal Displacement
Dr. Jasmin Lilian Diab, Institute for Migration Studies, Lebanese American University
Dr. Hana Asfour, MERNID Network, Researching Internal Displacement
Overview of the Conflict
In March 2011, pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in Syria’s Southern region inspired by uprisings in neighbouring countries against oppressive rulers across the Arab World. When the Syrian government used deadly force to crush the dissent, protests demanding the president’s resignation erupted nationwide. The unrest spread and the crackdown intensified. Opposition supporters took up arms, first to defend themselves and later to rid their areas of security forces. Following these escalations, the Assad regime vowed to crush what he called “foreign-backed terrorism”.
The war is currently being fought by several factions, including the Syrian Armed Forces and its domestic and international allies, a loose alliance of mostly Sunni opposition rebel groups (such as the Free Syrian Army), Salafi jihadist groups (including al-Nusra Front and Tahrir al-Sham), the mixed Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). While violence in the country has steadily diminished since 2015, the situation remains a humanitarian crisis. More than a decade later, the outcome of the war, as well as its protracted impacts on Syria and the region remains uncertain.
Displacement in Numbers
More than half of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million have fled their homes. Of that number, the United Nations and international organisations have identified 13.5 million as displaced persons, and nearly 11.1 million who require humanitarian assistance. An estimated 6.7 million are internally displaced (many more than once), with more than two million living in tented camps with limited access to basic services. Another 6.8 million are refugees or asylum-seekers abroad. According to the UN, as of February 2022, 14.6 million people inside Syria were in need of some form of humanitarian assistance, with an estimated 5 million classified as being in extreme or catastrophic need. More than 12 million people are struggling to find enough food each day, and at least 500,000 children are chronically malnourished. An estimated 3.8 million of those displaced people inside Syria are women and adolescent girls between the age of 15 and 49, and over 5 million are pregnant.
Across the last two years, the humanitarian crisis in Syria has been compounded by an unprecedented economic crash triggered by strict US sanctions, the Lebanese economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. By 2021, the Syrian currency had lost close to 80% of its value, causing prices of basic goods to skyrocket. By 2022, the national poverty rate reached an unprecedented 90%. Syria has also been one of the countries in the Middle East worst affected by COVID-19. Due to the nationwide limited testing capacity and an increasingly fragmented and politicised healthcare system (reflected in the different structures, processes and readiness of the health system across different regions of the country), the number of COVID-related deaths and positive cases is difficult to assess. As of March 2022, 3,100 confirmed deaths due to COVID-19 were recorded, while only 7.4% of the population had been fully vaccinated. Entire neighbourhoods and vital infrastructure across the country also remain in ruins. UN satellite analysis suggested that more than 35,000 structures were damaged or destroyed in Aleppo city alone before it was recaptured by the government in late 2016.
Realities in Host Countries
The Syrian conflict has resulted in one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history. Presently, neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey host 84% of Syrian refugees globally. Lebanon currently hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees per capita, with an estimated 1.5 million refugees, including both those registered and unregistered in a country of 4 million people. Turkey currently hosts the highest number of Syrian refugees globally, with an estimated 3.6 million refugees within its borders. Amid Lebanon’s ongoing economic and financial crisis, an estimated 90% of Syrian refugee households live in extreme poverty as of 2022, up from 55% in early 2019. According to the UN, Syrian households are living on less than half the Lebanese minimum wage, roughly USD 36 monthly and shrinking in real terms as the Lebanese Pound continues to fluctuate in value. For Syrian refugees in Lebanon, this means deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation, health, shelter, and education - a reality exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 80% of Syrian refugees lack legal residency since the registration of Syrian refugees by UNHCR in Lebanon was suspended by the government in 2015. To register outside UNHCR, a Lebanese sponsor, the approval of the authorities, and an annual USD 200 renewal fee are required. The fee remains unaffordable for most and approvals continue to be difficult to attain amid government strikes. Thus, many cannot access services, are hampered in their movements, and are exposed to exploitation, detention, and deportation.
In the case of Jordan, the country hosts 1.36 million refugees, of whom 760,889 are UNHCR registered refugees, and 46.2% are under the age of 18. The majority (82.7%) of registered Syrian refugees reside outside camps, in urban areas of the country. By February 2022, more than 90% of Syrian refugees in camps and 50% of those in urban areas were vaccinated.
After the 2016 Jordan Compact, the Government of Jordan has focused on building the resilience of Syrian refugees and vulnerable host populations, primarily through enhancing access to education and job opportunities, as well the implementation of the Decentralisation law and the emphasis on participatory approaches at municipal and local levels. In 2021, Jordan was able to reach its highest record in issuing 62,000 work permits to Syrians. Despite the country’s efforts to facilitate their access to the labour market, the COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating impacts on Syrian refugees as well as the host population. Previously, Syrian refugees in Jordan were mainly permitted to work in agriculture, construction and manufacturing, however, since July 2021, they have been granted permits to work in the sectors that are open to non-Jordanian residents.
For Syrian refugees, Turkey implements a Temporary Protection Regime (TPR) under the Law on Foreigners and International Protection, which extended education and health care as well as the right to legal work to all Syrian nationals who registered. The temporary protection status is acquired on a prima facie, group basis, to Syrian nationals. In recent years, Syrians’ presence in the country has increasingly come under public scrutiny, with figures across the political spectrum blaming them for the country’s economic crisis. Despite ongoing efforts under the TPR, according to Human Rights Watch, Turkish authorities have been reportedly detaining and coercing Syrians into signing forms saying they want to return to Syria and then forcibly returning them since 2019.
International Political, Legal and Humanitarian Efforts
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for greater collaboration among humanitarian and development actors in order to work towards addressing the needs of people affected by the crisis across the region. To ensure a coordinated response in the main refugee-hosting countries, UNHCR co-leads the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP). In 2021, the 270 partners under the plan aim at supporting more than 10 million people – including over 5.5 million Syrian refugees and 4.8 million members of their host communities. This is the highest number since the Syria crisis began. As per the UNHCR website, funds from the 3RP are used to cover school fees for children and youth, food and cash assistance, access to primary health care and hospital treatment for hundreds of thousands, as well as livelihood support. Funds under this plan also address protection risks such as gender-based violence.
The UN Security Council has called for the implementation of the 2012 Geneva Communiqué, which envisages a transitional governing body “formed on the basis of mutual consent”. Nine rounds of UN-mediated peace talks, known as the Geneva II process, failed to make progress. Russia, Iran and Turkey set up parallel political talks known as the Astana process in 2017. An agreement was reached the following year to form a 150-member committee to write a new constitution, leading to free and fair elections supervised by the UN. The last round of talks was held in October 2021, after which UN special envoy Geir Pedersen said it was a “big disappointment” that the committee’s members had so far been unable to find a common path.