Syria

Country Profiles Syria

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Executive Summary

Syria has been experiencing a state of war involving a multitude of internal and external actors since 2011. To sum up an evolving and complex multi-dynamic situation, although the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) were defeated at the hands of the Syrian Armed Forces loyal to President Bashar El Assad, the Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), they are still a threat to the population and still control small portions of territory. the USA is leading a coalition (initially involving the UK, France, Jordan, Turkey, Canada, Australia and others) mostly against ISIL but also against the Syrian Armed Forces, and Russia is currently leading operations supporting Bashar El Assad. Turkey and the FSA are currently carrying a land and air military operation in Northern Syria against the SDF who they consider terrorists, turning into a military crisis against Russia in Syria. As of December 2019, it is estimated that between 220,000 and 550,000 people have been killed since the beginning of protests in March 2011. This vast discrepancy is due in large part to the number of missing and disappeared Syrians. As of August 2020, almost 5.6 million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries, making up nearly one third of refugees worldwide. As of December 2019, approximately 6.62 million people are internally displaced, making it the world’s highest figure. The ongoing decade long war and coronavirus crisis have exacerbated the absolute disarray of Syrians, 90% of whom are estimated to be living under the poverty line in 2019, with 2.8 million people relying on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs. Human trafficking is a high risk for populations like foreign refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDPs), a situation which the embattled government has not prioritized to tackle so far.

Country Profile

Basic Information

Syria is located on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean and is bordered by Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, the Holy Land (Israel-Palestine), and Lebanon, with a 180 km long opening on the sea. The 187,437 sq. km country was carved out of the Ottoman Empire after WWI and administered by France until being granted independence in 1946. Hafiz al-Assad came to power in 1970 and his son, Bashar al-Asad, succeeded him in 2000. More than half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million has been displaced at some point since the beginning of the 2011 war. As of August 2020, almost 5.6 million have fled to neighbouring countries and, as of December 2019, approximately 6.62 million are internally displaced. Syria’s pre-war ethnic mix was reported to be: Arab 50%, Alawite 15%, Kurd 10%, Levantine 10%, other 15% (includes Druze, Ismaili, Imami, Nusairi, Assyrian, Turkoman, Armenian). The country’s religious communities were Muslim 87% (includes Sunni 74% and Alawi, Ismaili, and Shia 13%), Christian 10% (includes Orthodox, Melkite, Syriac, Maronite, Chaldean and Armenian), Druze 3%, and a few Jews in Damascus and Aleppo. The Christian population may be considerably smaller because many have fled the country during the ongoing war. After nearly a decade of conflict marked by violence, military operations and multiple displacements and economic shocks across northwest Syria, 2.8 million people rely on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs including shelter, health, food and water. Up to 90% of the population in Syria was estimated to be living beneath the poverty line in 2019. The COVID-19 crisis only worsened access to humanitarian aid and put any prospect of economic recovery further away.

International and Internal Migrants

Due to the Syrian War, the number of migrants employed in Syria has reduced to nil. Although parts of the Syrian territory are now exempt from active fighting, foreign workers have not returned to the country, due to the instability, fear, and economic hardships the country faces.

Emigration and Skilled Migration

Though Syria accounts for less than one percent of the world’s population, its people make up nearly one third of refugees worldwide. The UNHCR recorded 5,553,896 refugees from Syria as of 14 August 2020, more than from any other country; this constitutes nearly 30% of the country’s pre-war population (urban, peri-urban and rural population: 5,269,890; camp population: 284,006). Of those who fled Syria, the overwhelming majority stayed in the Middle East.

Since 2014, Turkey has been hosting more refugees under UNHCR’s mandate than any other country in the world. In August 2020, the number of Syrians with temporary protection status in Turkey remained stable at just above 3.6 million. Over 98% of Syrians lived in urban, peri-urban and rural areas, with less than 2% residing in seven remaining temporary accommodation centres.

The Lebanese government estimates that up to 1.5 million Syrians live on Lebanese territory in 2020, while 658,756 Syrians are registered in Jordan as of 4 August 2020. Iraq reports 245,800 registered Syrians, and Egypt 129,200. Some 90% of Syrian refugees live in urban areas in neighbouring countries, often in overcrowded informal settlements and dangerous locations. There was no major influx of new refugees into these host countries in 2019 as borders and admission practices were closely managed. Some 17,500 Syrians, however, were displaced into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq as a result of an increase in hostilities in northeast Syria as of December 2019. While no country saw a substantial decrease in registered Syrian refugees, others saw modest net increases, primarily as a result of new registrations, particularly new-borns.

Outside the immediate region, two countries continued to host the largest Syrian refugee populations: Germany (572,800) and Sweden (113,400). It must be added that 120,000 out of 560,000 Palestinian refugees under the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), whose community had been present in the country since the 1948 first Israeli-Arab war, also fled.

The brain drain and loss of workforce Syria has been experiencing for almost a decade can only contribute to exacerbating the economic hardships that stem from the war. As will be explained below, refugees in the Middle East face a high risk of human trafficking and abuse.

Forced Migrants (internally displaced, asylum seekers and refugees)

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), Syria has 6,495,000 internally displaced persons as of 31 December 2020, being the highest figure in the world, out of which 1,847,000 are people newly displaced in 2019, mostly resulting from military offensives in the north-east and north-west of the country. This figure must be compared with 1.6 million displaced people in 2018 and 2.9 million displaced people in 2017. In January 2020, the humanitarian community tracked about 464,800 IDP movements across Syria. The largest population movement recorded in Idlib governorate with about 320,600 IDPs, including 297,000 IDPs displaced from within Idlib governorate and 23,500 IDPs displaced from Aleppo governorate. The second-largest population movement was recorded in Aleppo governorate with around 132,600 IDPs, including 86,100 people arriving from within Aleppo governorate and 46,400 IDPs from Idlib governorate. The third-largest movement in the first month of the year is recorded in Al-Hasakah governorate with around 4,900 IDPs of which 3,700 were displaced within the governorate while the rest moved from Aleppo governorate.

As for returnees, the humanitarian community recorded about 21,400 spontaneous IDP returnees in different locations across Syria in January 2020. The majority of these returns were recorded within Aleppo governorate with 5,600 returns. The second largest return movements were to Al-Hasakah governorate (around 4,800 returnees), some 4,600 of whom returned from within the governorate.

IDPs trying to return to their homes in North-Eastern and North-Western Syria face many challenges as a result of the Turkish incursion and subsequent changes in local community dynamics and demographic makeup. As a result, some have been prevented from returning. Overshadowed by these events, the implementation of Law 10, which is officially 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. Many IDPs who lost deeds and other documents during their displacement have found it is too late to make their claim 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 underway in their home areas.

According to the UNRWA June 2020 Humanitarian Snapshot, 438,000 Palestinian refugees remain in Syria (31% of whom are children). Belonging to the most vulnerable categories are 126,000 Palestinian refugees Practically all Palestinian refugee households in Syria live in absolute poverty (91%), two-thirds of them were displaced at least once since 2011, and 40% of them remain displaced within Syria. Palestinian refugees are affected by limited freedom of movement and face challenges in obtaining essential civil status documents.

In figures dated June 2020, UNHCR details as follows: the current scale of refugees and asylum seekers is 23,618 (excluding camp population), 15,320 of these are urban refugees, and 8,298 are asylum seekers; in addition there is a camp population of 31,069. Total updated refugees and asylum population should therefore be approximately 54,687. An outdated 2017 analysis stated that refugees were mostly residing in Damascus and in Al-Hasakah Governorates and were predominantly from Iraq. UNHCR states that although the Syrian Arab Republic maintains a generous approach to refugees (granting them access to territory and free access to education), since the onset of the crisis in 2011, the protection standards for refugees has seriously deteriorated. Continuous violence, displacement and economic hardship have caused significant protection risks and vulnerabilities, including: psychosocial trauma and disorders, particularly among children and other vulnerable groups; kidnappings and forced detention; increased rates of child marriage as a coping mechanism for young girls who have suffered from violence, substance abuse and exposure to crime; and exclusion and discrimination. In the context of protracted armed conflict, persons with disabilities, the elderly and single-parent households are significantly affected.

Victims of Human Trafficking

The information in this section is largely sourced from details contained in the Syrian chapter of the US State Department’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report.

As the country entered its 10th year of war, human traffickers continue to exploit domestic and foreign victims in Syria. Lacking resources and being actively involved in the war, the Assad government was reported to have taken no action against human trafficking, thus contributing to the population’s vulnerability to trafficking. Syrian government forces, loyalist militias, and armed non-state actors, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and affiliated groups, Kurdish forces, ISIL, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, al-Qaeda, and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, all commonly recruit and use boys and girls as child soldiers, resulting in children facing extreme violence and retaliation by opposed belligerents. The government reportedly continued to arrest, detain, and severely abuse child soldiers from the opposition forces, and punished them for unlawful acts they were compelled to commit. Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS also have used children as human shields, suicide bombers, snipers and executioners. Militants also use children for forced labour and as informants, exposing them to retaliation and extreme punishment. Some armed groups fighting for the Syrian government, such as Hezbollah, and loyalist militias known as the National Defence Forces (NDF), or “shabiha,” forcibly recruit children as young as six years of age. ISIL actively deploys children in hostilities, some as young as eight years old, including forcing children to behead Syrian government soldiers. The terrorist group has deliberately targeted children for indoctrination and used schools for military purposes. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) in Northwest Syria continued to recruit, train, and use boys and girls as young as 12. In June 2019, the SDF and by association the YPG and YPJ, took steps to end the recruitment and use of children and to demobilize children within SDF ranks after adopting a UN Security Council resolution that mandated such an action plan.

Several credible sources continue to widely report that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the Iranian Basij Resistance Force use force and other coercive means to actively recruit Afghan children and adults, Afghan migrant and refugee men and children living in Iran, and also Iranian children, to fight in IRGC-led and funded Shia militias that are deployed to Syria. Syrian children are reportedly vulnerable to forced early marriages, including to members of terrorist groups such as ISIL. This can lead to commercial sexual exploitation and forced labour. Children displaced within the country continue to be subjected to forced labour, particularly by organized begging rings. Despite the territorial defeat of ISIL at the beginning of 2019, it continued to force local Syrian girls and women in ISIL-controlled areas into marriages with its fighters. It routinely subjected women and girls from minority groups into forced marriages, domestic servitude, systematic rape, and other forms of sexual violence. According to the Kidnapped Yazidis Rescue Office in Duhok, Kurdistan Region, 3,543 kidnapped Yazidis have been rescued, with 2,800 still missing. Reports indicate some of these women and girls remained with ISIL in eastern Syria or are held in Al-Hol camp.

National Legal Framework

The Syrian Arab Republic is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol and has not enacted national refugee legislation. Nevertheless, UNHCR states on its Web portal on Syria that the country has been tolerant in hosting refugees and has continued to cooperate with UNHCR in extending protection and assistance to refugees and asylum seekers on its territory. In the absence of a national legal framework and asylum procedures for the protection of refugees in Syria, UNHCR currently conducts the registration of asylum-seekers and the assessment of their asylum claims under its mandate. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had committed to lead efforts to draft a national asylum law in 2009, but due to the conflict arising in 2011 and the shift in priorities that accompanied it, these efforts were suspended. As the conflict continues, the protection situation for refugees has significantly deteriorated and local integration in Syria does not appear to be a realistic scenario in the years to come.

The 2016 Submission by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees For the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Compilation Report gives an extensive overview of the legislation situation, confirming that Syria lacks a national legal framework on asylum. Article 39 of the 2012 Constitution of the Syrian Arab Republic stipulates, “Political refugees shall not be extradited because of their political beliefs or their defence of freedom.” A new immigration law issued in March 2014 (No. 2/ 2014), refers to refugees with valid UNHCR certificates as one of the categories of individuals who are entitled to obtain residency in Syria. Apart from these provisions, the country does not define the term “refugee” or refer to the protection available to them in its national legal framework. On the other hand, laws, decrees and regulations relating to the entry and legal status of foreigners apply also to refugees and asylum-seekers. Consequently, refugees and asylum-seekers admitted into Syrian territory are legally included in the national immigration framework. If they entered the country through regular channels and possess a passport, they will be issued with a residency permit valid for up to one year and renewable, depending on the validity of the refugee identity card issued by UNHCR. The identity cards issued by UNHCR to refugees and asylum-seekers are, however, also generally respected by law enforcement authorities. It is reported that at least 25% of the refugees and asylum-seekers cannot currently obtain residency and are thus at a higher risk of arrest and deportation, which may amount to refoulement. In terms of their enjoyment of fundamental rights in Syria, refugees and asylum-seekers have access to public facilities, such as transportation, drinking water, electricity, health care and education (including access to universities), but they are not entitled to work.

Regarding human trafficking legislation, Decree No.3 of 2011 appeared to criminalize some forms of sex trafficking and labour trafficking, though it did not include a clear definition of human trafficking. This decree prescribed a minimum punishment of seven years’ imprisonment and a fine of between one to three million Syrian pounds ($2,300 and $6,900). Law No.11/2013 criminalized all forms of recruitment and use of children younger than the age of 18 by the Syrian armed forces and armed groups. The government made no efforts, however, to prosecute child soldiering crimes that were perpetrated by government and loyalist militias, armed opposition groups, and designated terrorist organizations. The government reported no investigation, prosecution, or conviction of suspected traffickers, nor did it investigate, prosecute, or convict any government officials who were complicit in human trafficking. The government did not provide anti-trafficking training for officials.

Main Actors

According to OCHA’s online dashboard, in June 2020, there were 123 actors involved in the humanitarian response in Syria. These comprise 10 UN institutions, 106 Syrian NGOs and 20 international NGOs, 11 organisations operated by the Government of Syria, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the Palestine Red Crescent Society. The number of actors is constantly fluctuating though appearing to decline as in 2018 there were 170 registered players. A sector-oriented dashboard is available for further consideration. Both make mention of all actors involved and identify the names of the organisations that provide the funds as well as the names of the organisations operating on the ground. UNHCR co-led the refugee and resilience response plan to the Syria crisis (3RP) together with UNDP, coordinating support to Turkey’s refugee response through the Syria Task Force (STF) and sector working groups. The 2019-2020 3RP strategy was launched in March 2019. 3RP provides a strategic, coordination, planning, advocacy, fundraising, and programming platform for humanitarian and development partners to respond to the Syria crisis. It comprises one regional plan, with five standalone country chapters: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Under the cycle of the United Nations Development Cooperation Framework (UNDCF) for 2016-2020, UNHCR also chaired the Migration and International Protection Results Group.

The above mentioned OCHA dashboard mentions the following Catholic organisations that are active on the ground: Armenian Catholic Charity, Ami des Pauvres/Friends of the Poor, the Society of St Vincent de Paul, Caritas Syria, the Monastery of Saint James the Mutilated, and the Syriac Catholic Archbishopric.

Here is a summary of the activities that can be found regarding the main Catholic charities in Syria:

  • The Council of the heads of the Catholic Churches in Syria founded Caritas Syria in 1954. With the beginning of the war in Syria in March 2011, Caritas began to expand in order to reach the largest possible number of beneficiaries without discrimination. The number of its offices, centres and staff increased to cover six regions: Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, the Coastal Area, Al Hasakah and Horan. The war has deprived most Syrians of any source of income, and through its various projects, Caritas Syria has offered different kinds of aid: food and basic items, education, support to the elderly, psycho-social support for children and housing assistance. Caritas Syria works in partnership with various religious communities and also cooperates with Shiite and Sunnite humanitarian organizations, in order to reach the maximum number of people in need.
  • Catholic Relief Services (CRS), together with Caritas and other local partners, supports hundreds of thousands of displaced families. CRS-supported centres for refugee youth promote educational opportunities, training for teachers, and also provide healing to children and their families.
  • The Jesuit Refugee Service Syria (JRS Syria) was founded in 2008 in response to the growing number of Iraqi refugees. It expanded its mandate in 2011 and began serving
    internally displaced Syrians by providing health services, education, child protection, skills-training, and emergency aid. The Society of Jesus suffered the loss of Father Frans Van der Lugt, who was assassinated in Homs on 7 April 2014 by members of the Al-Nusra Front, affiliated to Al Qaeda in Syria. His beatification process is open.
  • The Order of Malta leads projects focused on refugees and asylum seekers. In Syria, through a network of local humanitarian partners, the Order of Malta distributes medicine and basic necessities from mobile clinics in the refugee camps around Damascus and Aleppo.
  • L’Œuvre d’Orient has been present in Syria for 160 years and helps to rebuild buildings through various reconstruction projects such as, for example, the reconstruction of the Maronite cathedral of Aleppo, the renovation of houses to help the displaced population to return to the old city of Homs, the reconstruction of the Der-el-Zor Armenian quarter, as well as rebuilding damaged schools and hospitals. L’Œuvre d’Orient also initiates projects that allow Syrians to find work. In parallel with the material reconstruction, l’Œuvre d’Orient also seeks to mend broken hearts and spirits through various initiatives such as the “Heavenly Space”, Jdisc, and Study Zone.
  • Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), in Syria ACN supported 125 projects last year and offered pastoral aid to 55,000 people, provided more than 10,000 Mass stipends as communities and Bishops struggle to finance priests. ACN allocated 70% of its aid to emergency help.
  • CAFOD is supporting a partner organisation to respond to coronavirus in the camps in north-west Syria, an area where few other agencies are currently operating due to the situation. CAFOD’s support is helping to build new toilets, hand-washing sinks and laundry facilities in 15 unregistered camps in north-west Syria, for families who have fled the conflict. The organization gives out sanitary packs to vulnerable families, along with advice on how they can protect themselves from coronavirus.
  • Organizers of “Operation Open Hospitals in Syria” hope to provide life-saving services free of charge to vulnerable Syrians at three Catholic-run hospitals and aid some 50,000 patients by the project’s end in 2021. Implemented by AVSI, a nongovernmental organization founded in Italy in 1972, the project is the brainchild of Cardinal Mario Zenari, the nuncio to Syria. AVSI set up social offices in three historic, non-profit Catholic hospitals: the Italian and French hospitals in the capital, Damascus, as well as St. Louis Hospital in the northern city of Aleppo. Staff make assessments for the most vulnerable people to receive free medical care.
  • SOS Chrétiens d’Orient is a French charity that has been acting at two levels: distributing essential supplies that meet emergency needs (food, water, blankets, electricity etc.) and with projects designed to prepare for the post-war period, such as reconstructing destroyed houses and churches, developing agricultural projects, and assisting with student education fees and housing costs. On its website the charity reports eight on-site volunteers, 20 Current projects, 378 Completed projects, and 11 missionary locations.

Other Important Issues

The two major Catholic communities in Syria are the Greek-Melkite Catholics and the Syriac Catholics. Also present are the Maronites, the Catholic Chaldeans and Catholic Armenians, as well as the Roman Catholic Church. All of these communities are served by bishops who are members of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries in Syria. The Most Reverend George Abou Khazen,

Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo for the Latins, is a member of the Conference of Latin Bishops of the Arab Region (CELRA). There were 368,000 Catholics in pre-war Syria, comprising approximately 2% of the total population.

On a different note, wives of Islamic State fighters and their offspring are kept in a camp in northern Syria, known as Al Hol. Some 13,500 are foreigners originating from an estimated of 70 countries. The camp hosts 70,000 persons, 90% of them women and children. In addition to refugee and asylum-seeking populations, within its territory Syria also has several historically stateless populations, including two groups of ethnic Kurds, each with varying rights and statuses. Unregistered Kurds, known as the Maktoumeen (their estimated number was 150,000, but an unknown number may have fled the country and sought refuge elsewhere) are ineligible, however, to apply for nationality. They remain stateless people.