Syria is now in its seventh year of an armed conflict and protection crisis with no end in sight. Renewed offensives in the first quarter of 2018 has already led to the displacement of as many as half a million people in only three areas – Eastern Ghouta, Idlib and Afrin district. Over half of the country’s pre-war population have been forced to flee their homes since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011, when a government crackdown on peaceful protests turned into a full-scale civil war.
Peaceful protests began in the southern city of Dara’a in March 2011 following the authorities’ arrest and torture of 15 children who had called for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad. After the Syrian military laid siege to Dara’a and violently repressed increasingly large demonstrations, several army officers defected and formed the Free Syrian Army in July 2011.
From that point, the civilian uprising was transformed into an armed conflict. Since then, the fluidity of the multiple front lines between government forces, large numbers of splintering armed groups, and terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and HTS (a coalition spearheaded by the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria), and violations of international humanitarian law perpetrated against civilians by all parties to the conflict have driven millions of people to flee within and beyond Syria’s borders.
2016 and 2017 brought no respite for civilians, who continued to bear the brunt of extreme violence committed by all parties and fled their homes across the country, with many of them displaced more than once to steadily diminishing areas of safety. The hostilities were relentless and included deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, such as schools and healthcare facilities. In sieges such as the one in Eastern Ghouta, people continue to be deliberately deprived of aid and access to basic services such as food, water and medical care. Offensives, such as the Government of Syria’s offensive to retake eastern Aleppo that ended with government victory in December 2016, have staggering consequences for the civilian population. Intense fighting in the Aleppo city forced nearly 160,000 people to flee from their homes and caused widespread damage to housing and infrastructure.
The negotiation of two separate cessation of hostilities agreements by the United States and Russia in February and September 2016 brought about temporary lulls in fighting and declines in displacement, but hostilities and their impact on the civilian population flared again after each agreement. De-escalation zones negotiated between Turkey, Russia and Iran in Astana, Kasakhstan in 2017 that were to be implemented in non-government controlled areas of Idlib and Daraa provinces as well as enclaves of Eastern Ghouta and Homs, brought hopes to civilians that, at the very least, a lull in violence was on the horizon. However, renewed government offensives in Idlib at the end of 2017 and Eastern Ghouta in early 2018, officially put an end to any hopes for a decrease in violence. Turkish troops also began an offensive in Afrin district in early 2018, where the PYD, the Syrian offshoot of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) retained control. As of mid-March 2018, Turkish forces effectively controlled the area.
Moreover, offensives against ISIL in the north-east of the country took place on two key fronts throughout 2017. The Government of Syria, supported by Russian air power retook Deir Ez-Zour in November 2017, leading to the displacement of more than 800,000 people. The U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured ISIL’s self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa, in October 2017, displacing the entire city of 220,000 people, along with another quarter million people throughout the governorate. Return movements to these areas have been recorded in 2017, however barriers to return include the widespread presence of UXOs and land mines and the total breakdown of key service infrastructure.
Internal displacement patterns are generally influenced by a variety of factors, such as family ties, religious or ethnic affiliation, areas of armed group influence, apparent safety and access to shelter, basic services and humanitarian assistance. In Syria, many people are forced to flee at short notice and repeatedly over time, and they may face protracted periods of displacement, with family separation as a possible consequence.
Shifting front lines and subsequent changes to the security environment have also forced people to move a second, third or fourth time, with IDPs leaving shelters to return home during lulls in violence, only to flee again when fighting re-escalates. Multiple displacement has become the norm, with IDPs in Syria compelled to flee as many as 25 times because a single move could not protect them from constantly shifting front lines and the breakdown of basic services. Of the 6.8 million people living in displacement as of Decmeber 2017, approximately 750,000 are currently living in ‘last resort sites’, i.e. camps and informal settlements, throughout the country, most of which are concentrated along the Turkish-Syrian border.
With the effective closure of Syria’s international borders with Turkey in 2016, people encountered increasing barriers to seeking refuge in Turkey or asylum abroad. Similarly, Syria’s southern border with Jordan has been closed for years, leading to similar conditions of protracted displaced in the border region with Jordan
In 2017, return movements, both internal and from neighboring countries have been recorded. However, a number of NGOs working in Syria have warned that given the escalation of violence in Syria, conditions are not safe for returns. Harsh conditions in neighboring countries and places of internal displacement may have led to a heightened number of returns this year. However, for every return, three new people were displaced throughout the year.
Syria has been described as the largest protection crisis of our time, with repeated breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law by all parties to the conflict. The number of new displacements recorded in Syria for 2017 is 2.9 million, the highest figure globally. Proximity to armed hostilities, increased poverty, family separation and lack of civil documentation have been identified as critical factors that increase protection risks and the vulnerability of people in Syria.
As of December 2017, an estimated 2.9 million people live in hard-to-reach locations, including about 420,000 people in besieged locations, most of which reside in Eastern Ghouta. In addition to food insecurity, civilians in these areas face deliberate blockades on medical evacuations, limited access to services and supplies, and severe restrictions on their freedom of movement. Humanitarian agencies’ access to these locations remained sporadic.
IDPs living in both official camp sites and informal settlements are suffering from poor conditions. Issues include overcrowding, lack of water and sanitation facilities and difficulties accessing food and cash. The lack of livelihood opportunities and poverty affects IDPs in camps and host communities alike. Issues they face in their place of displacement often leads to a decision to flee again. This cyclical pattern of displacement erodes personal resources and coping mechanisms as IDPs gradually run out of options to meet their basic needs and become almost entirely dependent on aid.
|Displacement type||IDPs (Stock)||New Displacement (Flow)|
|Geographical disaggregation||Admin 2 or more||Admin 2 or more|
|Geographical coverage||Partial coverage||Partial coverage|
|Frequency of reporting||Every month||Every month|
|Disaggregation on sex||No||No|
|Disaggregation on age||No||No|
|Data triangulation||Some local triangulation||Some local triangulation|
|Data on settlement elsewhere||No||No|
|Data on returns||Partial||Yes|
|Data on local integration||No||No|
|Data on deaths||No||No|
|Data on births||No||No|
The estimates are based on several sources, including the IDP Task Force, Needs and Population Monitoring, CCCM Cluster, and OCHA. They capture the number of people displaced across the whole country during 2017. The main limitations include a decrease in coverage in December and the need to rely on estimates for unassessed areas of the country. The majority of the figure corresponds to movements which were triggered by the Deir ez Zor and Raqqa offensives, as well as ongoing fighting in Idleb, Hama and Aleppo governorates.