The Syrian armed conflict, now in its eighth year, began as part of the Arab Spring protests which swept through the region in 2011. Peaceful protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad soon spiralled into an armed conflict that has displaced more than half of the country’s pre-war population. New displacement figures during the war in Syria have been some of the highest recorded globally.
In 2018, government offensives to retake the besieged enclaves of Eastern Ghouta in Damascus suburbs, the southern governorates of Dara’ and Quneitra and parts of the northern governorates of Hama and Idlib led to the majority of 1.6 million new displacements recorded. By the end of the year, 6.1 million people remained displaced, making Syria the country with the largest number of IDPs, globally.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
What causes displacement?
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 the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad. After the Syrian military laid siege to Dara’a and violently repressed increasingly large demonstrations, a number of officers defected and formed the Free Syrian Army in July 2011.
From that point, the civilian uprising was transformed into armed conflict. Many frontlines opened up between government forces, large numbers of splintering armed groups and terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a coalition spearheaded by the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Fierce fighting and violations of international humanitarian law perpetrated against civilians by all parties to the conflict have forced millions of people to flee within and beyond the country’s borders.
There was no respite in 2016 and 2017. The hostilities were relentless and included the deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure such as schools and healthcare facilities. Many people have been displaced more than once to steadily diminishing areas of safety. During sieges such as the one in eastern Ghouta, which lasted for five years, people were deliberately deprived of aid and basic services such as food, water and medical care. Military operations such as the offensive to retake eastern Aleppo had dire consequences for the civilian population. Intense fighting triggered nearly 160,000 displacements and left the city in ruins. .
The negotiation of two cessation of hostilities agreements by the US and Russia in February and September 2016 led to temporary lulls in the fighting and declines in displacement, but fighting and its impact on the civilian population flared again after each agreement. De-escalation zones negotiated between Turkey, Russia and Iran in 2017 that were to be implemented in non-government controlled areas of Idlib and Dara’a provinces and the eastern Ghouta and Homs enclaves raised hopes of at least a lull in violence. Renewed government offensives in Idlib at the end of 2017 and eastern Ghouta in early 2018 extinguished that hope.
Offensives against ISIL in the north-east of the country took place on two main fronts during 2017. The government supported by Russian air power retook Deir Ez-Zour in November, triggering more than 800,000 displacements in the process. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured ISIL’s self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa, in October, displacing the city’s entire population of 220,000 people, and triggering another 250,000 displacements across the wider governorate. Return movements to these areas were recorded in 2017, but obstacles include the widespread presence of unexploded ordnance and landmines and the complete breakdown of basic service infrastructure.
Despite the overall reduction of violence and displacement in 2018, significant displacement took place in the first half of the year when government offensives led to the retaking of large swathes of territory including Dara’a and Quneitra governorates and parts of Damascus and Homs suburbs. Only Idlib governorate remains in the hands of non-state actors, while north-eastern Syria remains under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Where and how do people move?
Internal displacement patterns in Syria are influenced by a variety of factors, including family ties, religious and ethnic affiliation, the territorial control of armed groups, apparent safety and access to shelter, basic services and humanitarian assistance. Many people are forced to flee at short notice and repeatedly over time, and they may face protracted periods of displacement with family separation a possible consequence.
Shifting frontlines and subsequent changes to the security environment have made repeated displacement the norm, as IDPs leave their places of refuge to return home during lulls in the fighting only to flee again when it resumes, or keep moving onwards as the conflict catches up with them. Some IDPs have fled as many as 25 times in search of safety, protection and basic services.
Of the 6.1 million people living in displacement as of December 2018, around 870,000 were living in “last resort sites” such as camps and informal settlements, most of which are concentrated along the Turkish-Syrian border. The effective closure of the border in 2016 has made it much more difficult for people to seek refuge or asylum abroad. Syria’s southern border with Jordan has also been closed for years, leading to similar conditions of protracted displacement in that border region.
Similar numbers of return movements both internal and from neighbouring countries were recorded in 2017 and 2018, but for every return, new displacements were also recorded. A number of NGOs working in Syria have also warned that given the escalation of violence, conditions are not safe for returns. Harsh conditions in neighbouring countries and places of internal displacement may have led people to try to return prematurely. A new housing, land and property law passed in April 2018 also raises concerns about the post-conflict reconstruction process.
What is life like for IDPs and communities hosting them?
Syria constitutes one of the largest displacement crises in the world, characterised by repeated violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by all parties to the conflict. There were 1.6 million new displacements recorded in 2018, and despite it being a significant decrease from the previous year, it still represents one of the highest figures, worldwide. Proximity to hostilities, increased poverty, family separation and lack of civil documentation have been identified as critical factors in increasing people’s protection risks and vulnerability.
There were also around 1.1 million people living in hard-to-reach locations as of December 2018, a reduction compared to the 2.9 million the year before. As of July 2018 there have been no UN-declared besieged areas in the country, with previously besieged areas having been retaken by government forces. Humanitarian access to areas that have recently shifted to government control presents a new access challenge in the Syrian context.
IDPs living both in official camps and informal settlements face overcrowding, especially in north-west Syria, with some sites accommodating 400 per cent above capacity. Due to the lack of space in IDP sites, a number of communities in Idlib province have reported an increase in the number of people living in open spaces.
Where does data on displacement come from and what are the main challenges?
To calculate the figure for new displacements and total number of IDPs, IDMC primarily uses Humanitarian Needs Assessment Programme (HNAP), but also Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) cluster data and the IDP Task Force’s dataset- a compilation of data received from OCHA Syria, CCCM Turkey, OCHA Jordan, UNHCR Jordan and HNAP.
The figure is considered to be an underestimate for several reasons, namely due to limited access to some parts of the country during certain periods throughout the year, and because of a lack of information on short-term displacements.
IDMC’s estimate of the total number of IDPs in Syria is based on an analysis of data published by the Humanitarian Needs Assessment Programme (HNAP). IDMC combined the number of IDPs with the number of people affected by shelter damage, who are displaced within their community.
The estimated number of new displacements in 2018 is based on IDMC’s analysis of data obtained from HNAP, the camp coordination and camp management cluster and Syria’s IDP Task Force. The number of new displacements is an underestimate given that the data has limited coverage between January and April 2018 and excludes IDPs displaced for fewer than 30 days.
Given high levels of insecurity and lack of services and infrastructure, IDMC considers all reported returns to peoples’ original homes or temporary accommodation reported by HNAP as partial solutions.