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. Over half of the country’s pre-war population — more than 12 million people — have been killed or forced to flee their homes.

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. Having just endured a harsh winter, families now face the threat of COVID-19, a global pandemic that poses significant risk to vulnerable communities across the world. 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.

Infographic: More than 11 million Syrians are on the run, including some 5.6 million who have been forced to seek safety in neighboring countries. 13.1 million are still in need of humanitarian assistance.

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?

Mercy Corps has worked in Syria during the entirety of the nine year conflict -- as well as in every major global conflict over the past three decades. And yet, what we are seeing unfold in Idlib and Western Aleppo is unprecedented. The human suffering is catastrophic,” says Beth deHamel, Interim Chief Executive Officer of Mercy Corps.

Read our full statement calling for a ceasefire in Syria here.

The United Nations has called for a nationwide ceasefire so that the people of Syria, with the help of organisations like Mercy Corps, can tackle the new challenges presented by COVID-19. Given their living conditions and fragile health system, Syrian families and refugees are particularly vulnerable to the suffering COVID-19 is causing across the world.

An escalation in violence in Idlib and western Aleppo provinces has forced nearly a million Syrians to flee, according to the United Nations. Nearly 180,000 families, more than 195,000 women, and more than 560,000 children are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. The majority of families headed north towards the Turkish border, where there are camps often with no shelter, food or clean water.

Many international NGOs and their international staff have been forced to depart the area or halt operations because of the deteriorating situation. As a result, Mercy Corps’ international staff and our local partners on the ground have either had to operate in a limited capacity, relocate, or had access dramatically reduced. More than 70% of Mercy Corps team members across Idlib province are themselves displaced from their homes. Still, they continue tirelessly to work to bring some comfort to the communities we serve.

“We are burning through our supplies much faster than anticipated,” says Kieren Barnes, Country Director for Syria. “We just do not know how long this will continue, how many more people will need help and for how long, a level of emergency that is impossible to comprehend.”

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

The Syrian government has reported its first cases of COVID-19 and instituted a ban on movement between governorates within the country. While no cases have been reported to date within Syrian displacement camps, there is significant concern that spread of the coronavirus is going undetected, due to a lack of testing.

At the moment, many organisations, including Mercy Corps, are calling for a ceasefire in order to expedite aid to those in need. Those living in refugee camps are especially vulnerable given the cramped living conditions and lack of medical services.

“The destruction this kind of virus could have in northwest Syria cannot be overstated,” says Kieren Barnes, Mercy Corps’ Country Director in Syria. “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. 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 rapidly 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.

From Kieren, our Country Director: "Safe hygiene is a massive challenge for people fleeing danger even under the best of circumstances. Clean water is a luxury, soap isn’t guaranteed. We are increasing the amount of water we provide to each family, as well as increased supplies of soap. We are installing more water tanks to improve safe water storage. As aid workers, we are desperately anxious -- the nightmare that over a million people on the run are living through can easily get a lot worse.”

Support our COVID-19 Resilience Fund 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 6.2 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.

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 6.2 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 1.6 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 2 million internally displaced Iraqis — efforts that we are working to support.

More than 3.5 million Syrian refugees have fled across the border into Turkey, overwhelming urban host communities and creating new cultural tensions.

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 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes — enough people to fill roughly 221 Yankee Stadiums. This includes about 5.6 million refugees who have been forced to seek safety in neighbouring countries, out of a total of 6.3 million Syrian refugees worldwide — almost one-third of the world’s total refugee population.

Syrians are now the largest refugee population in the world

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 5.6 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 24 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 80,000 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 organised "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.

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 labor, 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 liters 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 2.7 million — are under the age of 18. Most have been out of school for months, if not years. About 37,500 school buses would be needed to drive every young refugee to school.

MORE: Syrian dad determined to keep refugee kids learning ▸

Almost half (48%) of Syrian refugees are children who've lost everything.

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.

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, $5.6 billion is required, and only 37 per cent has been received.

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 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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