31 December 2013 |

Syria: Internal displacement in brief

As of December 2013


By the end of 2013, Syria’s internal displacement crisis had become the largest in the world. The number of people fleeing armed conflict doubled between 2012 and 2013, and according to the UN at least 6.5 million people, or around a third of the country’s population, were internally displaced by the end of the year. Taking Syria’s 2.5 million refugees in neighbouring countries into account as well, nearly half of country’s population has been forcibly displaced since the start of the conflict in 2011.

Civilians bore the brunt of an escalation in hostilities during 2013, as government forces relied increasingly on militias and paramilitary groups, including Lebanon’s Hizbullah. The opposition splintered into a diverse range of increasingly radical groups, some of them affiliated to al-Qaida. The radicalisation of the belligerent parties also increased sectarian divisions, leading some IDPs to seek refuge among their kinsfolk, particularly Kurds in the north of the country.

Lack of security and access restrictions created huge challenges in terms of data gathering. Internal displacement has been underreported and three years into the conflict, countrywide information on the issue is still severely lacking. That said, estimates by different humanitarian organisations have proved largely consistent.

Despite the scale of the crisis, the government has refused to recognise those forced to flee the conflict as IDPs, referring to them instead as “people who have left their homes”. This has meant that humanitarian organisations, including the UN, have had to carefully balance the concerns of all parties to the degree of semantics, the lack of access and the need to reach those civilians most in need. Most IDPs have sought safety with relatives, but more than 173,000 have fled to public shelters. Another 108,000 at least were living in eight camps and around 25 makeshift sites along the Turkish border as of the end of the year.

IDPs found it harder to reach Syria’s borders, let alone cross them, during 2013. Such restrictions breach both the 1951 Geneva Convention and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. The situation was particularly serious for Syria’s 525,000 Palestinian refugees, half of whom have been internally displaced. Neighbouring states have refused to allow them to cross the Syrian border, because they are wary of increasing their own populations of Palestinian refugees.

IDPs’ physical protection needs have gone largely unaddressed and remain a serious concern. Basic needs have also often not been met. In July, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of IDPs, Chaloka Beyani, drew attention to indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including government airstrikes on displacement camps in the north of the country. The targeting of civilians led to arbitrary displacement and “constituted a crime against humanity and/or a war crime,” he said.

By failing to authorise access for relief agencies to those in need, including 240,000 besieged people in Syria’s contested cities, all parties to the conflict have violated IDPs’ basic right to request and receive protection and assistance. Humanitarian space shrank dramatically in the north of the country during 2013, around 46 humanitarian workers killed and a number of others were kidnapped. A lack of effective coordination made the delivery of assistance more difficult still, especially in the areas no longer under government control.

A shortage of funding hampered the humanitarian response even further. Only 67.7 per cent of the $2 billion the UN requested had been donated by the end of the year.  In October, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a presidential statement on humanitarian access in Syria, which condemned its denial and urged Damascus to lift restrictions on relief operations. The presidential statement by the UN General Assembly also called on Syria to facilitate cross-border operations, but no such efforts were forthcoming on the ground. Initiatives to find a political solution to the conflict did not move forward during the year, either at the national or international level.