The year 2020 marked the tenth anniversary of the start of the Arab spring. Syria’s civil war began as part of the protests, which swept through the region in 2011. Peaceful rallies against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad quickly spiralled into an armed conflict that has displaced more than half of the country’s pre-war population.
Armed conflict, disasters and an economic downturn continued to displace hundreds of thousands of people in Syria in 2020. A devastating offensive by Syrian government forces in the northern governorate of Idlib triggered 960,000 new displacements. It accounted for around half of the 1.8 million recorded nationwide and was the biggest displacement event since the start of the war in 2011. More than half of those forced to flee in Idlib governorate had been displaced at least once before.
Disasters have also triggered significant waves of displacement in Syria over the years. Wildfires in October affected as many as 140,000 people and triggered 25,000 new displacements in Latakia, Tartous and Homs governorates. They damaged homes and electricity and water networks, as well as crops and farmland which heightened food insecurity. Some of the villages evacuated were home to IDPs who had returned after fleeing conflict.
Around 6.6 million people were living in internal displacement as of the end of the year, the highest figure in the world. The humanitarian situation continues to deteriorate, and Syria’s collapsing economy and persistent insecurity continue to uproot thousands of people from their homes. Around 9.3 million people were food insecure as of November 2020, an increase of more than 1.4 million compared with 2019 and the highest figure recorded since the war began.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
The Arab Spring was the main trigger of Syria’s conflict, but evidence shows that an extended period of drought and the steady decline of the country’s economy were among the underlying factors that led to civil unrest in 2011. As the conflict entered its tenth year, around 6.5 million people were living in internal displacement, the highest figure in the world.
The first three years of the war brought an unprecedented increase in internal displacement. Bombardments and intense clashes between armed opposition groups and government forces led to 156,000 new displacements in 2011, mostly in Idlib and Homs governorates. As armed opposition groups seized swathes of territory during 2012, the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps deployed to support the Assad government. More than 3.5 million displacements were recorded in 2013, the highest annual figure of the conflict.
Extremist groups increased in prominence in 2013 and reached full strength in 2014 with the territorial expansion of ISIL across Iraq and Syria. This prompted a coalition of countries to launch a campaign of airstrikes against the group. The combination of ISIL attacks and the war against it drove hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, mostly in Raqqa, Deir ez Zor, Al Hasakeh and Homs governorates.
The government had lost most of the national territory to non-state armed groups by 2015, when Russia entered the conflict. With its military support, the Syrian armed forces recaptured key urban centres in 2015 and 2016, including Syria’s second city of Aleppo. The eastern part of the city was almost completely depopulated during the offensive.
The last three years have been characterised by government offensives against non-state armed groups in the southern and north-eastern parts of the country. Displacement has been reduced to a few governorates. The June 2018 offensive on Dara’a and Quneitra governorates triggered more than 285,000 displacements, most of them over a period of two weeks. A devastating offensive by Syrian government forces in the northern governorate of Idlib triggered 960,000 new displacements between December 2019 and March 2020.
Russia and Turkey agreed to a ceasefire on 5 March 2020, under which they committed to cease military action along the contact line in the Idlib de-escalation zone, and to establish a security corridor and joint coordination centres and patrols. The Idlib ceasefire marked the beginning of a reduction in hostilities in Syria that continued throughout the year. Tensions remained and sporadic violations of the agreement continued for several months, but overall there was a steady decrease in attacks and civilian casualties.
Internal displacement patterns in Syria are influenced by a range of factors, including family ties, religious and ethnic affiliation, the territorial control of non-state 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.
There were 1.8 million new displacements recorded in 2020, approximately the same as in 2019 and, a slight increase on the 1.6 million recorded in 2018. Shifting frontlines and subsequent changes to the security environment have made repeated displacement the norm. 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 people have fled as many as 25 times in search of safety, protection and basic services.
Internal and cross-border displacement has had a significant impact on the country’s demography. Some governorates, such as Raqqa, Al Hasakeh and Deir-ez-Zor, have been depopulated, losing 53, 27 and 28 per cent of their populations respectively. Others have experienced a large inflow of people. The governorate of Idlib’s population has doubled to more than 2.7 million, making it one of the most densely populated parts of the country. IDPs make up for almost two thirds of the population, and more than 56 per cent have been displaced for five years or more.
The effective closure of the border with Turkey 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.
The Idlib ceasefire agreement from 2020 has largely held since, leading to a significant decrease in violence. Fighting also subsided in other parts of the country, and the number of new displacements dropped to levels unseen since the start of the war.
Return movements have continued over the years, but for every return, new displacements were also recorded. Returns continued in 2019, when around 374,000 were recorded and in 2020, when 147,000 were recorded.
Syria’s displacement crisis is one of the world’s largest, the result of repeated violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by all parties to the conflict. Proximity to hostilities, increased poverty, family separation and lack of civil documentation all increase people’s protection risks and vulnerability.
The situation in Syria continues to be critical, and IDPs face acute needs. More than 200,000 people displaced by the recent offensive in Idlib returned between March and July 2020, but many areas of the governorate are destroyed and uninhabitable. Returnees struggle to access humanitarian assistance while they endure economic hardship and a volatile security situation.
This has led to overcrowding in shelters, and repair and reconstruction is complicated by the high price of materials and services as well as ongoing insecurity. Families in 75 per cent of the communities where IDPs have returned in Idlib are reportedly unable to afford essential food items. Damage to infrastructure and the high price of trucking means that half of the communities are short of water. IDPs have also reported being afraid to return to towns and villages the government has retaken. There is a well-documented record of government forces arbitrarily arresting, torturing and forcibly disappearing civilians from territories held by non-state armed groups.
The country also has to deal with a deepening economic crisis and tougher US sanctions put in place in June 2020. This has had a severe impact on IDPs. Markets in Syria are heavily reliant on imported goods and cross-border movement with Turkey, and the steep devaluation of the Syrian pound has eroded people’s purchasing power. Prices of basic necessities such as food, water and hygiene products have reached new highs each month since November 2019.
The situation has been further aggravated by restrictions on cross-border activities imposed because of Covid-19. The price of a typical food basket increased 200 per cent in the first six months of 2020. The prevalent insecurity, shrinking economy, unavailability of basic services and interference of foreign actors mean that there is still far to go before the conflict is resolved and IDPs are able to achieve durable solutions.
IDPs living both in official camps and informal settlements face overcrowding, especially in north-west Syria, with some sites are four times above capacity. Given the lack of space in displacement sites, a number of communities in Idlib governorate have reported an increase in the number of people living without a roof over their heads.
A housing, land and property law known as Law 10 was passed in April 2018. The legislation, which is intended to expedite the expropriation of land for reconstruction and “redesign of unauthorised illegal housing areas”, began to take effect in 2019. People’s knowledge of the administrative procedures required to claim their property rights tends to be limited, and many IDPs who lost deeds and other documents during their displacement have found it is too late to do so as a result. Their inability to exercise their property rights effectively means they are unable to return, or at least not sustainably, even if reconstruction is under way in their home areas. Government forces have retaken previously besieged areas, but humanitarian access to locations recently brought back under government control￼ .
Latest GRID figures analysis
Based on multiple sources, these estimates include both IDPs and returnees to Afghanistan, primarily from Iran and Pakistan. Some returnees have been included in our stock figure based on contextual evidence from partners in the field.