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Expert analysis

09 August 2023

Shaken to the core in Syria

Unprecedented disaster internal displacements from the earthquake this February caused overall displacements in Syria to rise for the first time since 2019. The vast majority of people displaced by the earthquake in Syria were previously displaced by conflict, compounding their challenges.  

When the magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck the Pazarcık district in Türkiye's Kahramanmaraş province on 6 February 2023, it triggered at least 4.7 million internal displacements across Türkiye and Syria, more than IDMC has recorded for any single earthquake event anywhere in the world since 2008. The more than 677,000 reported internal displacements from the earthquake in Syria is nearly four times greater than the total number of disaster-related displacements recorded by IDMC in the country since 2014. 

Despite recent reductions in conflict internal displacements, Syria hosted nearly 6.8 million internally displaced people (IDPs) as of May 2022, more than any other country in the world, roughly half of whom were living in areas most affected by the earthquake (see below map).  

Map of conflict IDPs and earthquake disaster displacement in Syria 2023

Earthquake and conflict IDPs overlap in northwest Syria 

More than 98% of internal displacements caused by the earthquake were recorded in Aleppo, Idleb and Lattakia governorates, the same area where more than half of all conflict-IDPs in the country are living. In Northwest Syria (NWS), which refers to the non-government-controlled areas of these governorates, 9 out of 10 people in IDP camps who were displaced by the earthquake had already been forced to flee their homes due to conflict in previous years.  

In NWS, people forced to move did so within the limited territory, while in government-controlled areas of Aleppo and Lattakia there were significant displacements towards southern governorates including Dar’a and As-Sweida. Farther away from the epicenter, the earthquake caused houses to collapse in Rural Damascus and Damascus governorates where there are also high numbers of conflict IDPs. 

Bar chart showing increase in disaster displacements in 2023 in Syria

After 6 months, over 114,000 people remain displaced 

Six months have passed since the earthquake, and the displacement situation continues to demonstrate regional variations in displacement dynamics. Across the country, more than 114,000 people remain displaced by the earthquake based on available information, with the vast majority, totaling 81,000 people, residing in IDP camps. In government-controlled areas, the number of IDPs in camps has significantly decreased, plummeting by 89% to nearly 7,100 IDPs. In NWS, the decrease was comparatively small, only 31%. Of the 108 earthquake emergency camps in NWS, 92 still stand, providing shelter to over 74,000 earthquake IDPs.  

Several months after the earthquake, NWS continues to witness additional internal displacements due to continued damage to houses from aftershocks, persistent safety concerns of future earthquakes, and repeated storms and floods. These circumstances underline the ongoing challenges in achieving stability and recovery in NWS, despite a gradual decrease in the overall number of IDPs displaced by the earthquake across Syria. 

Bar chart showing change in IDPs in camps in Syria Mar-Jun 2023

Challenges faced by IDPs overlap and accentuate vulnerabilities  

The intertwining of pre-existing vulnerabilities and earthquake-induced displacements has led to multifaceted challenges faced by the displaced population such as dire shelter conditions, limited humanitarian access, and emotional trauma. The earthquake had profound impacts on the population, especially on IDPs. Health conditions deteriorated due to unsanitary environments and limited access to clean water, heightening the risk of disease outbreaks. Earthquake-induced trauma, compounded by prior conflict-related traumatic experiences, has resulted in a high demand for mental health support to which access is rare. Additionally, women and girls in NWS faced heightened vulnerability to gender-based violence and exploitation, exacerbated by overcrowded temporary shelters. Access to education has also been severely disrupted, with many schools destroyed or unsafe and extended use of school buildings as collective shelters. 

Many IDPs fled to makeshift tents, often located in disaster-prone areas, which increases the risks for secondary displacements. Since the earthquake hit the region, over 1,100 tents were destroyed by storms and floods in NWS, displacing over 5,800 IDPs once again. 

Restricted humanitarian access following the aftermath of the earthquake has posed unique challenges for rescue operations, humanitarian aid delivery, and data collection efforts.   Three days after the earthquake, large parts of the affected population in NWS still couldn't access emergency/humanitarian aid, and even 6 months after the earthquake, this remains a challenge. Moreover, limited data collection hampered comprehensive situation assessments on the short term and long-term impacts of the earthquake. This incomplete information hindered response efforts and the ability of the government and aid organizations to address the needs of the affected population effectively.  

Limited data raises further questions on how to aid the displaced population  

Syria’s comprehensive data collection program, known as the Humanitarian Needs Assessment Programme (HNAP), was shut down in December 2022 due to funding shortfalls. This has made data collection in the earthquake aftermath more complicated, particularly in the non-government-controlled parts of NWS. It therefore remains largely unclear who the people displaced to communities and camps are. Further, for both government-controlled and non-government-controlled areas, limited data is available on IDPs hosted within communities, as opposed to those in camps. This prevents a comprehensive analysis of the current displacement situation and the duration of the displacement. Additionally, the displacement status of those who stayed in temporary IDP camps in government-controlled areas remains largely unclear, as many of the camps have been closed in the past months.  

Looking ahead 

Frequent storms and floods, sporadic fighting in NWS, and severe funding shortfalls for humanitarian aid, including data collection, contribute to the complexity of the challenges faced by the displaced population in Syria. In addition, while the continued use of the Bab al-Hawa crossing, through which 85% of aid to NWS is delivered, was eventually announced on 8 August, humanitarian access remains uncertain and prospects for durable solutions elusive. 

Addressing the data gaps on internal displacement in Syria is imperative to monitor the scale of displacement, understand the unique needs of the displaced population, and ensure effective delivery of humanitarian aid. Improved data collection not only enhances the ability to respond effectively to crises but also ensures that aid is channeled efficiently to those who need it most. This urgent need underscores the importance of investing in robust data collection systems, which will ultimately strengthen the capacity to mitigate the impacts of conflict and disasters on vulnerable populations.

For more information visit IDMC's Country Profile for Syria