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Syria Is Now the World’s Biggest IDP Crisis

Experts say Syria’s internally-displaced refugee crisis is worsening due to a lack of cross-border aid access and the spread of violence.

Written by Katarina Montgomery and Karen Leigh. Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

According to a May report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), Syria is now the largest internal and fasting evolving displacement crisis worldwide. More than three years into the conflict, IDMC says 9,500 Syrians are displaced per day – approximately one family per minute are becoming refugees in their own country.

In July, Chaloka Beyani, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), first drew attention to possible crimes against humanity and war crimes involving IDPs, including including air strikes that targeted large concentrations of displaced families.

Despite the scale of the crisis, the Syrian government has refused to formally recognize those forced to flee as IDPs, referring to them instead as temporarily displaced persons. With no political solution in sight and an increasing lack of access to cross-border aid, many Syrians are at risk of a prolonged IDP situation.

Here, Guillaume Charron, IDMC’s analyst on the Middle East; Elizabeth Ferris, co-director of the Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement; and Noah Bonsey, senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group, weigh in.

Syria Deeply: How many people are currently displaced inside Syria?

Guillaume Charron: According to our latest report, by the end of 2013, Syria’s IDP crisis has become the largest in the world. The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported 6.5 million (at least 32% of the population) IDPs in December 2013. UNRWA has also reported 270,000 Palestinian refugees forced into secondary displacement.

Factoring in Syria’s 2.5 million refugees in neighboring countries, nearly half of the country’s population has been forcibly displaced since the start of the conflict in 2011. A conservative estimate is 9,500 per day. There has been an increase by 3.5 million people this year.

Syria Deeply: What are the factors leading to displacement?

Charron: The initial displacements were linked to violence and insecurity, but it is now increasingly needs driven. IDPs are displacing themselves to get closer to distribution points, access points and border points that are controlled by the opposition, so that they can get access to food and basic assistance.The majority of the IDPs have been displaced several times.

Since the beginning, every place the IDPs end up has been targeted. Wherever IDPs were going, the government and its repression followed. Douma, a neighborhood in Damascus, for instance, became a hotspot that was targeted, as a result of the presence of IDPs and protesters.

Syria Deeply: What are the conditions like for IDPs? How are they coping?

Elizabeth Ferris: We know the situation is dynamic, with people sometimes moving on a weekly basis, moving [from a camp] to stay with relatives and then coming back. Reports from NGOs in rebel-held areas say there’s very little coming in. One journalist said conditions were really bad on the Syrian side. The government considers them people temporarily living outside their homes, but does not formally recognize them as IDPs. They have responsibility under international law to take care of IDPs.

Charron: The majority of the IDPs are not staying in public areas. Less than two percent of Syria’s displaced population, or around 108,000 people, are living in eight camps and around 25 makeshift sites along the Turkish border.

The majority of IDPs stay with relatives, but more than 173,000 have fled to public shelters. If you look at the capacity of the rural cities and villages to accommodate the number of IDPs, you quickly realize that they are unable to handle this degree of an influx of people, so the majority of IDPs are left out in the cold, living in makeshift settlements in camps under dire conditions.

The most vulnerable IDPS are in opposition-held areas, which are not receiving the same degree of aid, due to the access restrictions and the difficulties in cross-border aid. These areas are also under threat of bombardment by the Syrian authorities.

Noah Bonsey: Part of the issue is when the camps in Turkey are filled, it leads some who might otherwise stay in Turkey to return to Syria. The difficulty of securing income and being able to support a family in Turkey can also create an economic incentive to return.

A lot of what you see in the north is people taking refuge inside Syria, but in camps that are located just inside the border. The conditions are very poor. There are international NGOs that work within them, but the camps are overcrowded and still dangerous. A car bomb struck inside one such camp in February, and ISIS is suspected of carrying out another bombing near a camp at the border yesterday.

Syria Deeply: How is the international community meeting the needs of IDPs?

Bonsey: The situation differs dramatically, depending on whether people are living in regime or rebel-controlled areas. For those in rebel areas in the north, a huge problem is that the U.N. does not bring aid from across the Turkish border, insisting that it cannot do so without the regime’s permission. There are other organizations willing to provide cross-border aid, but so much of the international donor funding goes through the U.N. and is thus limited to areas in which the regime is willing to grant access. This means there’s a real imbalance as to which IDPs get aid.

Several prominent figures and NGOs have been pressing the U.N. to carry out cross-border aid with or without the Syrian government’s permission. But the U.N. hasn’t signaled that it will do so, and the regime is unlikely to grant them permission unless it faces meaningful pressure from Russia or Iran.

Ferris: The Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) has been the primary vehicle for distributing aid to IDPs [in government held areas]. Gulf charities are among the most active in providing to IDP camps in rebel-held areas. The Syrian government does have some collective centers [that distribute aid], and we’re hearing that more and more people are moving to government-controlled areas to get assistance. The situation on the border is awful for people who are lining up on the Turkish-Syrian border.

Charron: It is very hard for people to plan for assistance if almost everything is done through SARC and the Syrian government, and with very little knowledge of where the assistance is going.

[His organization’s report says that funding is also an issue: OCHA’s humanitarian response plan requested more than $2 billion, but was only sixty seven percent funded at the end of 2013.]

I don’t see much investment by the international community in thinking about reconstruction after the conflict, and its even harder to imagine doing so in the context of a fragmented Syria.

Syria Deeply: What are some of the long-term challenges? Is there a risk for a protracted IDP situation?

Charron: Syria was a rather rich country before the conflict. People depended on a vast network of social benefits and subsidies, and all of this has now completely crumbled and Syria is barely managing now.

There are several factors leading to the protracted nature of this displacement. The complete destruction and demolition of infrastructure as a result of battle and combat, and retaliation: demolishing houses in opposition-held areas that were prone to protest. For example, the Homs combat zone and areas in Damascus have basically been completely leveled.

The fragmentation of Syria and the fact that we are not headed towards national reconciliation are leading to a protracted IDP situation in Syria.

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