Shaza Zafer Al Jundi
2018 / 4 / 28
Eight years after the onset of the conflict, Syria has become the world’s leading country of forced displacement, with more than 12 million of its people uprooted from their homes.
Since 2011, 50 Syrian families have been displaced every hour of every day. The pace of displacement remains relentless. The conflict in Syria is estimated to have brought about the internal displacement of approximately 8 million people within the country, a vast majority of whom live in non-camp settings, the biggest internally displaced population in the World.
Around 2.4 million people in Syria – more than 8,000 every day – fled their homes in the first nine months of 2017, according to UN report. The UN predicts a further 1.5 million Syrians will be displaced in 2018. Furthermore, at least half of the IDPs in Syria have experienced multiple displacements as a result of the spread of violence, depleted capacities of host communities,´-or-difficulties faced in accessing livelihoods. The massive volume of IDPs in Syria threatens to render the country unsustainable for generations and finding solutions for the displaced has become an integral component of achieving lasting peace in Syria.
The bulk of international attention has focused on people who risked their lives to seek refuge in Europe, yet neighboring countries have significantly reduced the influx of refugees´-or-closed their borders completely. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Syrian IDPs trapped inside the country,´-or-in border camps, are living in poor humanitarian conditions.
While internally displaced people often flee their homes for similar reasons to refugees (armed conflict, human rights violations, and natural disasters) technically, they are not refugees. Internally displaced people have not crossed an international border to find refuge and remain legally under the protection of their own governments, even though governments are often the cause of their flight.
The challenges that IDPs face are not dissimilar to those of refugees, but they can be accentuated. If they are not,´-or-are no longer on the other side of an international border, vulnerable populations will not be protected by international refugee law, including the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its Protocol, and it is highly unlikely that their situation will be addressed by the Global Compact for Refugees. This is not to say that IDPs do not have legal protections. Despite the absence of a specific international legal framework, IDPs are protected by International Human Rights Law and domestic law at all times, and in armed conflict, benefit from the protections that any civilian is entitled to under International Humanitarian Law.
The escalation of fighting and the failure of the "de-escalation zone" areas have led to a significant increase in the number of displaced people in 2018. The UN says “The humanitarian crisis in Syria is reaching new peaks as hundreds of thousands of people flee the escalating fighting in Eastern Ghouta and Afrin, the latest flashpoints in the long-running conflict”.
Idlib figures within one of the so-called de-escalation zones set up in Syria last September in an effort to scale back the conflict. But as the fighting continues, tens of thousands of civilians are fleeing the area, which is home to about two million people. An estimated 200,000 people are believed to have been displaced in recent weeks.
A Syrian government offensive in Estern Ghota has already forced more than 150,000 civilians to flee in less than a month-;- with tens of thousands more at risk as fighting escalates. The newly displaced are currently accommodated in seven collective shelters, in buildings such as schools and an electricity utility, where conditions are very basic. According to UNHCR staff, the needs are overwhelming and growing by the hour. There are also serious health risks. “All existing shelters are extremely congested and overcrowded and lack basic sanitation. People queue in lines for hours to use restrooms, and most have no lighting”, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Syria condemned the "tragic" living conditions of thousands of IDPs in Damascus.
Humanitarian organizations expect tens of thousands more to be forced out on the roads in the coming weeks, to the Idlib region which is already so saturated with IDPs that local communities are finding it impossible to cope with the influx. The Idlib area is the largest remaining opposition-held territory in Syria, its population swelled by insurgents and civilians retreating from shrinking rebel strongholds elsewhere. IDPs are being displaced into already over-stretched camps, informal settlements, and host communities. The United Nations said this week it had tracked 212,000 displacements in the last month alone, though some may have been counted more than once on their journey. Neighboring Turkey has built a wall along the frontier and tightened control at crossings, leaving tens of thousands of Syrians near the border with nowhere left to flee.
In the northern Afrin region, an estimated 104,000 people have been uprooted from their homes by the latest escalation in fighting by Turkey. Some 75,000 are sheltering in Tal Rifaat, while another 29,000 have sought safety in Nubol and Zahraa and surrounding villages in northern rural Aleppo. In addition, some 10,000 people are reportedly stranded at Az-Ziyara.
Displacement trends in Syria were described by the UN “fluid and dynamic,” with UNICEF estimating that some children have been displaced up to seven times before reaching safety. All of these issues are often compounded by the fact that crises today are usually protracted ones, and that those displaced will not have a realistic and safe opportunity to return to their homes for several years. They have experienced enough loss (of assets, housing, and land), traumatic experiences (of conflict and violence) and many simply cannot afford to move again. They have no knowledge of their own rights, and their governments are often ill-equipped to protect their rights: There would not be internal displacement if governments were able to uphold their citizens’ rights.
IDPs face serious protection needs related to the ongoing conflict. Families have been separated, there is a heightened risk of sexual violence, and children experience trauma. Both IDP and refugee women report increased domestic violence and pressure to adopt negative coping methods such as early marriage and prostitution.
Provision of international humanitarian assistance to IDPs within Syria has been particularly difficult. The UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and international NGOs have worked through local partnerships, particularly with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society and have established humanitarian hubs in Homs and Tartous. There have also been inter-agency cross-line convoys into areas which had previously been inaccessible. Security-related impediments to access include active fighting and military operations, closure of key access routes and formal and informal checkpoints.
Syrians and the difficulties international agencies face in accessing IDPs and other affected communities in parts of the country, these operations are needed to ensure the protection and assistance of vulnerable civilians. While cross-border operations are presently taking place, these need to be expanded and their legitimacy recognized through Security Council resolutions. Establishing any UN cross-border humanitarian aid operation will be tremendously challenging both politically and logistically, but there are precedents that can and should be used.
Given the lack of political solutions in the immediate future, serious efforts need to be made to look beyond the daunting challenges of responding to the needs of the over 8 million displaced persons and to consider steps that can be taken now to support refugees and IDPs to find solutions in the future.
Collaboration and coordination of humanitarian response should be strengthened, particularly with respect to non-traditional actors. A wide array of local and regional actors is presently working on humanitarian issues, both inside and outside Syria. In fact, most of the assistance being provided inside Syria is being delivered by local Syrian and regional NGOs. Initiatives need to be carried out now to think about the long-term future of Syria’s IDPs and refugee.
We need creative thinking . There is a lack of basic research on IDPs. When I recently reviewed the state of research on IDPs, it was sad to see that researchers are paying less attention to IDPs than they did in the past. As I have written earlier, there is a sense that IDPs have fallen off the international agenda and have been mainstreamed into oblivion. We need new mechanisms for holding governments accountable for the way they deal with IDPs.
The issue of returns is a complex issue, raising issues not only of reconstruction, but also issues of legal assistance with property claims and transitional justice. The report by the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children, and Action against Hunger, CARE International, Danish Refugee Council, and International Rescue Committee reported that for every Syrian who returned home last year, three more were newly displaced. The report warns “Despite Syria’s changing military situation, the country is still volatile and dangerous as recent military escalations in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta demonstrate. Without a stable political and security solution, guarantees and reconstruction, IDPs cannot return to their destroyed homes”.
Shaza Zafer Al- Jundi is an UN expert worked for the ILO, UNDP and UNRWA for the past 25 years. She has a Ph.D. in political science from the American University in London. She is the Head of Disability Rights, Syria.