The Humanitarian Crisis in Syria

By Phil Orchard, University of Queensland


Earlier this month, the conflict in Syria crossed an important milestone: it created the two millionth refugee, 1.7 million of whom have fled in the last year. Coupled with massive internal displacement within the country – estimated in April to sit at 4.25 million- Syria is the single largest forced migration situation in the world today.

Further, there is little prospect of this flight ending: UNHCR has estimated that by the end of the year, there will be 3.5 million refugees, while some UN estimates suggest as many as 10 million people within Syria, almost half of its 21.4 million population, will need life-saving assistance. The situation of the Syrian displaced is tragic. The international community struggles to respond to the crisis inside Syria and across the region. At the same time, refugees and IDPs face both physical protection and assistance issues, but also lack clear legal protections.

First, with respect refugees, 97 percent of them remain within the region. This has been because of only limited resettlement opportunities, though there have been some positive shifts: Germany has received the first of 5,000 refugees they have agreed to accept, while Sweden has announced it will give all Syrian refugees who reach its territory permanent residency.


For the vast majority of refugees, however, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq have become their countries of refuge. While UNHCR operates in each country, Turkey is the only one to have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. And, because Turkey has not ratified the 1967 Refugee Protocol, it is not legally required to extend refugee protections to non-Europeans. The right of non-refoulement, or non-return to a country where a refugee will face persecution, is customary law and therefore applicable to all countries. But other core rights for refugees, including non-persecution for illegal entry, freedom of movement, and access to basic services, are not.

Further, these countries are under increasing strain from the sheer number of refugees. Lebanon has accepted in 720,000 refugees which now make up fifteen percent of its total population. There, the government has supported the refugee residing with host families or other informal settlements, rather than in camps. In Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, refugees are spread through some 23 refugee camps. While Turkey has spent an enormous amount on accepting some 463,000 refugees and building camps – up to US$750 million – it has decided to halt construction of camps, with new refugees having to find accommodation in Turkish border towns subject to attack from the Syrian military. In Jordan, similarly, the camps are under increasing strain. The Za’atari refugee camp, opened one year ago, is already full with 140,000 refugees.


The situation is even bleaker within Syria. In April, the UN estimated that there were 4.25 million internally displaced persons within the country, a figure which had doubled since January. No new figures have been released, but this population has undoubtedly grown. The Syrian government, however, does not admit they have internally displaced persons. As they wrote to the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Dr. Chaloka Beyani:

The Government stated its position that the Syrian Arab Republic was not suffering from a phenomenon called “internally displaced persons” but rather had been subject to a series of terrorist attacks undertaken by armed outlaws. As such, persons being assisted were referred to as “people who left their homes as a result of the current events”.

The Special Rapporteur found in his report on Syria that the IDPs were driven to flee by “gross violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law by Government forces and dissident armed groups.” Most IDPs continue to “face significant protection concerns in relation to the ongoing conflict… [g]iven the near absence of areas providing safety.” They are living with host families or in public shelters or makeshift accommodations. But the lack of government support means many of these facilities lack access to water, electricity, and other basic necessities.

Further, Syria has experienced a dramatic collapse of its infrastructure and basic services. Food stocks and food supply networks have collapsed. 1.2 million houses, almost a third of all homes in Syria, have been damaged or destroyed. 57 percent of hospitals have been damaged or destroyed. 20 percent of schools have been either damaged, destroyed, or are serving as shelters for IDPs.

This has led to a massive humanitarian effort inside the country. The UN has 4,500 staff inside Syria, and 12 NGOs have an additional 600 staff. But this comes at a steep price – at least 11 UN Staff and 22 Syrian Red Crescent volunteers have been killed. And access for humanitarian agencies is very problematic due to the ongoing fighting, the unwillingness of belligerents to provide safe passage, and a gauntlet of checkpoints. This has meant, for example, that the World Food Program has been unable to access 39 locations in Damascus and Rural Damascus since the middle of last year. Last week, the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator, Valerie Amos, issued a statement when she said: “People are unable to leave sealed-off Government or opposition-held areas, sometimes for months on end, and have run short of water, food, power and medicines. I am extremely worried by reports that more than half a million people remain trapped in Rural Damascus.”

Further, there are growing concerns over limited international assistance being provided as winter approach. The UN has two separate plans for Syria. The Syria Humanitarian assistance response plan, which is to cover 2013 activities within Syria, has requested over US$1.4 billion, but is so far only 45 percent funded. The regional response plan has requested almost US$3 billion, but is similarly only 42 percent funded. The sheer size of these requests are part of the issue – at US$4.4 billion, they represent a quarter of the total worldwide contribution to humanitarian assistance last year, which was US$17.9 billion.

What can be done about the situation? Ongoing humanitarian assistance commitments are vital. At the same time, however, it is important to ensure that these refugees and internally displaced persons continue to receive their legal entitlements. UNHCR is on the ground in all four main host states and is undertaking registration activities for the refugees, which is important. Under its Statute, UNHCR can operate in countries even if they are not Convention signatories.

At the same time, though, the internally displaced population within Syria can be better protected if the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were applied to the conflict. While non-binding, the Guiding Principles use as their foundation existing international human rights law, humanitarian law and refugee law. As Walter Kälin, the former Representative of the Secretary-General for the human rights of internally displaced persons, has argued: “It is possible to cite a multitude of legal provisions for almost every principle…” The Principles have been slowly moving into regional and domestic law, most recently with the adoption of the African Union’s Kampala Convention in December of last year.

Crucially with respect to the Syrian conflict, the Principles provide rights for IDPs protections against arbitrary displacement, against attacks on IDPs not participating in hostilities, and a right to receive unimpeded access to humanitarian assistance. I do not expect the Syrian government, nor the rebels, to immediately follow them. The Special Rapporteur has already recommended that the Syrian government and the rebels to ensure the rights embodied within the Principles are respected. One additional route, however, would be through the UN Security Council. The Security Council routinely notes the importance of the Principles, and the 2005 World Summit declaration recognized them as “an important international framework” for IDP protection. With the Council once again negotiating a draft resolution, a direct reference to the Principles could be included. This would not only represent a clear assertion that IDPs have rights, but would also shine increased light on those who remain trapped within Syria.

Phil Orchard is a Lecturer in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland and a research associate with the Asia-Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. He is currently completing a book titled ‘Refugees, States, and the Construction of International Cooperation’ and, with Alexander Betts, has a forthcoming edited volume on ‘Implementation in World Politics: How Norms Change Practice’ (Oxford University Press). He tweets at: @p_orchard.

Author: protectiongateway

Human Protection Hub

One thought on “The Humanitarian Crisis in Syria”

  1. One slight correction- it has been brought to my attention that Turkey did accede to the 1967 Refugee Protocol, but they are the only country to have “expressly maintained its declaration of geographical limitation upon acceding,” and thus are not legally bound to apply the Convention to Syrian refugees. This from the official state parties list to the Convention and Protocol, available at: My apologies for the error.

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