The facts: What you need to know about the Syria crisis

Aerial view of refugee camp.

The Syrian conflict has created one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time, , and now, in one of the most fragile regions of the country, the first cases of COVID‑19 have been confirmed.

“Up until now, Idlib and Aleppo governorates in Syria have been spared the uncontrolled outbreaks we've seen in other places around the world, but the report of the first confirmed case in Idlib governorate is an extremely disturbing development in a highly vulnerable area.” says Kieren Barnes, Mercy Corps’ Country Director in Syria. “Aid workers have feared the appearance of coronavirus in northwest Syria for months. The millions who live in this region are often residing in close quarters, may not have enough clean water for drinking and handwashing, and frequently lack the necessary resources to protect themselves.”

As the pandemic spreads in Idlib and Aleppo, communities there are already facing growing food insecurity and water scarcity. To make matters worse, the UN Security Council approved a devastating resolution on cross-border aid to this region in Syria on July 11. The decision allows just one border crossing to remain open to deliver critical relief, while closing a second crossing that 1.3 million people in northern Aleppo had relied on for their survival.

These events only mark the latest emergencies to hit a country where war has persisted within its borders for nearly a decade. Since 2011, over half of Syria’s pre-war population — more than 12.7 million people — have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict. Families are struggling to survive inside Syria, or make a new home in neighbouring countries. Others risked their lives on the way to Europe, hoping to find acceptance and opportunity. All together, the Syria crisis can feel overwhelming.

But one fact is simple: millions of Syrians need our help. According to the U.N., $3.29 billion was required to meet the urgent needs of the most vulnerable Syrians in 2019 — but only about half of that has been received.

You can help. The more you know about the crisis, the more we can do together to help those in need. The lifesaving work we do, empowering people to survive through crisis and build better lives, is only possible with your knowledge and support.

So take a few minutes to understand the magnitude of this crisis, learn the facts behind the figures, and find out how you can help.

A grpahic displaying the country of syria showing the number of people displaced in and around the region.

When did the crisis in Syria start?

Anti-government demonstrations began in March of 2011, as part of the Arab Spring. But the peaceful protests quickly escalated after the government's violent crackdown, and armed opposition groups began fighting back.

By July, army defectors had loosely organised the Free Syrian Army and many civilian Syrians took up arms to join the opposition. Divisions between secular and religious fighters, and between ethnic groups, continue to complicate the politics of the conflict.

What is happening in Syria now?

Syrians who have already endured almost a decade of war and displacement are now facing unprecedented levels of hunger leaving millions of people acutely vulnerable to COVID‑19, international agencies warned on June 29 ahead of a key annual conference on the crisis.

Read our full statement on hunger in Syria here.

COVID‑19 restrictions, the collapse of the Syrian pound, and the displacement of millions of people have led to an unprecedented number of families in Syria who are no longer able to put food on the table or make enough money to afford basic necessities. A staggering 9.3 million Syrians are now going to sleep hungry and more than another 2 million are at risk of a similar fate – part of an overall rise of 42 per cent in the number of Syrians facing food insecurity since last year.

What effect is COVID-19 having on the Syria crisis?

In the northwest, a Turkey-Russia mediated ceasefire faces a bleak fate, with fighting and aerial bombardments reported since May. Home to over 4 million people, many of whom have been displaced multiple times, Idlib and northern Aleppo governorates now face a potential catastrophe as the first case of COVID‑19 was confirmed on July 10. Many live in squalid makeshift overcrowded camps or sleep out in the open. Water is scarce, and the health and civilian infrastructures are decimated. In recent weeks, a new wave of violence in southern Idlib has forced hundreds of families to pack up their few belongings and leave their homes and tents once again.

In the northeast, the first cases of COVID‑19 were confirmed in April of 2020, and with it concerns over a lack of preparedness remain high. Lack of COVID‑19 testing capacity, chronically understocked health facilities, and the main water pumping station - servicing 460,000 people - regularly being out of commission, continue to be the daily reality. Like in the northwest, taking measures to prevent the spread of Coronavirus is especially difficult in the many overcrowded camps and informal settlements across the region.

In government-held areas, as in neighbouring countries hosting refugees, Syrians are facing the reality that the threat of COVID‑19, the inability to work and the spiraling economic decline in the region is making their situation harder than ever.

“Social distance is a fantasy in a camp, but if we’re going to prevent a massive outbreak, we have to make it a reality." says Kieren Barnes, Mercy Corps’ Country Director in Syria. "We’re requiring safe distances as people line up to receive aid, we’re spraying surfaces, wearing protective equipment and sharing accurate information about how the virus is transmitted, but people live here in very close quarters. Imagine collecting some of the most susceptible people to illness and cramming them close together in some of the riskiest of living conditions. The disease could spread like wildfire.”

Our teams are currently working to reduce the risk of spread by sharing up-to-date information on COVID‑19 alongside delivery of still-needed basic essentials to people fleeing conflict. In addition to supplying our water and sanitation programming to conflict-affected areas in Northeast Syria, we’re also boosting our messaging about hygiene, COVID‑19, stigmatisation that sometimes happens with infection and how families can access local systems.

In Northwest Syria, our team has been preparing for COVID‑19 outbreaks in camps, running water delivery simulations in camps to ensure the process runs smoothly in the event of a full outbreak.

From Kieren, our Country Director: "Since March, Mercy Corps teams have increased the amount of soap and water we provide to each family, and have delivered additional water tanks to improve safe water storage. We are also distributing COVID‑19 flyers in camps and educating communities on the risks and how to stay safe.

"Too often, though, families tell us that they aren't able to take the necessary steps to protect themselves and their families. In displacement camps or mass shelters such as vacant mosques and schools, with the health infrastructure reduced to rubble around them, the odds are stacked against them.”

Support our COVID-19 response today

What is happening to Syrians caught in the war?

The war has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the nine years since it began. Crowded cities have been destroyed and horrific human rights violations are widespread. Basic necessities like food and medical care are sparse.

The U.N. estimates that 6.1 million people are internally displaced. When you also consider refugees, well over half of the country’s pre-war population of 22 million is in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, whether they still remain in the country or have escaped across the borders.

A syrian standing in a refugee camp

LEARN MORE: Syrian youth have lost years of their lives to war, but not their resolve ▸

The situation in Syria went from bad to worse when outside parties became involved in the conflict in the fall of 2015. As conflict intensifies, our teams on the ground have seen an increase in humanitarian needs and families forced to leave their homes in search of safety.

Where are Syrians fleeing to?

More than 6.1 million people have fled their homes and remain displaced within Syria. They live in informal settlements, crowded in with extended family or sheltering in damaged or abandoned buildings. Some people survived the horrors of multiple displacements, besiegement, hunger and disease and fled to areas where they thought they would be safe, only to find themselves caught up in the crossfire once again. Across northern Syria, we are seeing that 20-60 per cent of the population is made up of people who have had to flee their homes — many of them more than once.

More than 1.5 million Syrian refugees are living in Jordan and Lebanon, where Mercy Corps has been addressing their needs since 2012. In the region’s two smallest countries, weak infrastructure and limited resources are nearing a breaking point under the strain.

In August 2013, more Syrians escaped into northern Iraq at a newly-opened border crossing. Now they are trapped by that country's own internal conflict, and Iraq is struggling to meet the needs of Syrian refugees on top of 1.4 million internally displaced Iraqis — efforts that we are working to support.

Nearly 3.6 million Syrian refugees have fled across the border into Turkey, overwhelming urban host communities and creating new cultural tensions.

Refugees coming to shore in greece on an inflatable raft

How are Syrians escaping conflict?

Thousands of Syrians get displaced within their country every day. They often decide to finally escape after seeing their neighbourhoods attacked or family members killed.

For many of those searching for safer, more stable places to live, families will often have to leave most of their belongings behind. They might have to travel for miles, uncertain of where they might find their next meal.

How many Syrian refugees are there?

According to the U.N., more than 12.7 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes — enough people to fill Wembley Stadium more than 140 times. This includes about 5.5 million refugees who have been forced to seek safety in neighbouring countries, out of a total of 6.6 million Syrian refugees worldwide — more than one-fourth of the world’s total refugee population.

A graphic displaying the growing syrian refugee crisis with a graph that grows from over eighteen thousand four hundred twenty eight refugees in the year 2010 to five point seven million refugees in the year 2020.

Every year of the conflict has seen an exponential growth in refugees. In July 2012, there were 100,000 refugees. One year later, there were 1.5 million. That tripled by the end of 2015.

Today there are 5.5 million Syrians scattered throughout the region, making them the world's largest refugee population under the United Nations' mandate. It's the worst exodus since the Rwandan genocide 26 years ago.

Do all refugees live in camps?

The short answer: no. Only about 8 per cent of Syrian refugees live in camps. The majority are struggling to settle in unfamiliar urban communities or have been forced into informal rural environments.

Jordan’s Zaatari, the first official refugee camp that opened in July 2012, gets the most news coverage because it is the destination for newly-arrived refugees. It is also the most concentrated settlement of refugees: Approximately 77,000 Syrians live in Zaatari, making it one of the country’s largest cities.

The formerly barren desert is crowded with acres of white tents, makeshift shops line a “main street” and sports fields and schools are available for children.

Azraq, a camp opened in April 2014, is carefully designed to provide a sense of community and security, with steel caravans instead of tents, a camp supermarket, and organized "streets" and "villages."

See what refugees brought with them from home ▸

Because Jordan’s camps are run by the government and the U.N. — with many partner organisations like Mercy Corps coordinating services — they offer more structure and support. But many families feel trapped, crowded, and even farther from any sense of home, so they seek shelter in nearby towns.

Malek and houda pictured with their mother.

READ: One family's story in crowded Lebanon ▸

Iraq has set up a few camps to house the influx of refugees who arrived in 2013, but the majority of families are living in urban areas. And in Lebanon, the government has no official camps for refugees, so families establish makeshift camps or find shelter in derelict, abandoned buildings. In Turkey, the majority of refugees are trying to survive and find work, despite the language barrier, in urban communities.

What conditions are Syrian refugees facing outside camps?

Some Syrians know people in neighbouring countries who they can stay with. But many host families were already struggling on meager incomes and do not have the room or finances to help as the crisis drags on.

Refugees find shelter wherever they can. Our teams have seen families living in rooms with no heat or running water, in abandoned chicken coops and in storage sheds.

See photos: 8 important things Syrians have lost to war ▸

Refugees often land in host countries without all their identification, which has either been destroyed or left behind. Without the right documents in host countries, refugees can be evicted from housing, be unable to access medical care, education or most often, just be afraid to leave their homes. Without these documents, we see many refugees resort to negative coping strategies, including child labour, early marriage and engagement in unsafe work.

The lack of clean water and sanitation in crowded, makeshift settlements is an urgent concern. Diseases can easily spread — even more life-threatening without enough medical services. Reports indicate that as much as 35 per cent of the population is currently relying on unsafe sources to meet daily water needs. In some areas with the largest refugee populations, water shortages have reached emergency levels; the supply has been as low as 22 litres per person per day — less than one-tenth of what the average American uses.

Read our report about the water shortage in Jordan: Tapped Out ▸

The youngest refugees face an uncertain future. Some schools have been able to divide the school day into two shifts and make room for more Syrian students. But there is simply not enough space for all the children, and many families cannot afford the transportation to get their kids to school.

How many Syrian refugees are children?

According to the U.N., almost half of all Syrian refugees — roughly 2.8 million — are under the age of 18. Most have been out of school for months, if not years. More than 41,000 school buses would be needed to drive every young refugee to school.

MORE: Syrian dad determined to keep refugee kids learning ▸

A graphic providing a visual representation of the elements children have lost due to war with text that reads many, forty three percent, of syrian refugees are children who've lost everything. family, home, school, and friends.

The youngest are confused and scared by their experiences, lacking the sense of safety and home they need. The older children are forced to grow up too fast, finding work and taking care of their family in desperate circumstances.

One demographic that is largely overlooked is adolescents. Through Mercy Corps’ extensive work in and around Syria, we continuously witness young adults and adolescents in crisis.

The consequence of forgetting the unique needs of this next generation is they will become adults who are ill-equipped to mend torn social fabric and rebuild broken economies. Investing in adolescents now will yield dividends for decades to come for the peace and productivity so desperately needed in Syria and the region.

See their art and photos: What it's like to grow up as a refugee ▸

Watch videos they made: Leaving home behind ▸

Is there enough assistance to reach everyone?

With no lasting peace in sight, Mercy Corps and other humanitarian organisations are struggling just to keep up with needs that continue to grow exponentially. U.N. appeals have been significantly underfunded every single year since the start of the Syrian crisis.

According to the U.N., $4.6 billion was required in 2017 to provide emergency support and stabilisation to families throughout the region — but just over half was received.

This year, $7.7 billion has been pledged in aid — not nearly enough to fully address the scale of suffering felt by millions of Syrians.

What is Mercy Corps’ position on possible military action in Syria?

As humanitarians, Mercy Corps' work depends on living our values of neutrality, impartiality and independence. We cannot speak to military action; instead what we can and must do is call the attention of the world to those innocent civilians in Syria who are caught in the crossfire and need our support.

Whatever decisions policymakers in Washington, DC, at the United Nations and around the world come to, we urge them to be mindful of their responsibility to take all possible measures to protect innocent civilians in times of war. And to allow us, as humanitarians, the access we need to do our lifesaving work.

Our Syrian teams and partners are in many cases risking their lives to provide support to the communities around them. They suffer alongside their neighbours as they are helping. We must do all we can to support them.

Mercy corps employee talking to maram as she holds her baby
Mercy Corps works with refugees like Maram to find work that helps them meet their families’ immediate needs.

What can we do to help the people of Syria?

Mercy Corps is working hard to relieve the intense suffering of civilians inside Syria, as well as that of refugees seeking safety in neighbouring countries. Today, our team members are helping hundreds of thousands of people affected by the crisis and doing all we can to prevent a devastating outbreak of COVID‑19.

We are delivering food and clean water, restoring sanitation systems, improving shelters and providing families with clothing, mattresses and other household essentials. We are helping children cope with extreme stress and leading constructive activities to nurture their healthy development, while helping host communities and refugees work together to mitigate tensions and find solutions to limited resources. We are also supporting livelihood development through the distribution of items like seeds and tools and facilitation of cash grants and business courses.

We’ve worked in the region for 20 years and are committed to helping Syrians and the countries hosting them for as long as it takes.

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The more people who come together to help, the more people we can reach.