Syria Crisis explained

14 January 2019

A Syrian refugee child holds free medicine given to her by a mobile clinic run by CAFOD partner Caritas Lebanon.

CAFOD's local partners in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq are responding to the Syria Crisis.

As Syria’s civil war enters its eighth year, it remains the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.

According to the UN, the conflict has killed over 400,000 people and caused large-scale displacement. An estimated 6.1 million Syrians have been made homeless inside the country, and more than half the country’s pre-war population, 13.1 million people, are in need of urgent humanitarian aid – food, water, shelter and protection.

Donate to our Syria Crisis Appeal

Over 5.4 million Syrians have registered as refugees in neighbouring countries.

Thanks to the compassion and generosity of Catholics across England and Wales, our partners are providing vital emergency aid – food, shelter and medical care – to vulnerable families both inside Syria and in neighbouring countries.

Watch this update from Laura Ouseley, a member of the CAFOD World News team, who recently visited Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

How is CAFOD responding in the countries affected by the conflict in Syria?


Thousands of Syrian refugees are in urgent need of emergency assistance following days of snow and freezing temperatures.

CAFOD's Syria Crisis Manager Alan Thomlinson said: “This is probably the worst winter since the beginning of the Syrian war, eight years ago. Although winter provisions were in place, nothing could have prepared us for this storm.

“Many families are living in makeshift shelters not suitable for the freezing conditions. Now, because of the storm, they are being forced to watch what little they have wash away in flash floods.

“Even before the storm, refugees were living in poor conditions – many of the camps are built on farmland, which is prone to flooding. This combined with wind, rain, snow, and freezing conditions is enough to push the situation from precarious to catastrophic.”

Lebanon's Bekaa Valley has been hit with snow, wind and flash flooding which has destroyed many Syrian refugee camps. This picture shows the affect of some of the flooding.

Lebanon's Bekaa Valley has been hit with snow, wind and flash flooding which has destroyed many Syrian refugee camps. 

Please donate to our Syria Crisis Appeal

Storm Norma, which has brought flooding in addition to the harsh winter conditions, has affected at least 151 informal camps, housing 11,000 refugees, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

Alan continued: “Our local partners who have been providing vital aid to Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley, are doing all that they can to support the vulnerable, including the elderly, children and disabled people, so they can survive another unforgiving winter.” 

“Many families are living in makeshift shelters not suitable for the freezing conditions. Now, because of the storm, they are being forced to watch what little they have wash away in flash floods."

Over the winter, we provided items such as blankets and mattresses for vulnerable Syrian families facing the harsh winter in informal settlements in the Bekaa Valley.

We are working with our partner, Caritas Lebanon, who are providing primary health care and psychosocial services, accommodation support for vulnerable families and multipurpose cash grants, which allow people to prioritise their own needs. 

Our partners are also helping women affected by the crisis with academic and personal development initiatives, including developing leadership skills so they are better able to take up active leadership roles now and in a future Syria.  

Read about our ‘Lost Family Portraits’ photography project in Lebanon 


We are supporting Church partners in Syria, who are providing food parcels, medical aid and relief supplies and helping people to find safe places to stay, in areas held by both government and opposition forces. We are also helping people in northern Syria make a living. The extensive community networks of the Church mean that it is well placed to provide aid in some of the worst hit and most inaccessible areas of the country.

Unfortunately, we are unable to name our partners in Syria or state exactly where they are working. This is because many of the aid workers, priests and volunteers we support are operating at great risk to their own safety; publicising their work could endanger both them and the life-saving programmes they are delivering.


Our partner Caritas Jordan helps over 200,000 refugees and migrants each year with multipurpose cash grants, food, shelter, primary health care, as well as support for education and creating safe areas for vulnerable refugees.


We are working in Iraq to help our Church partners to respond to the urgent needs of families forced from their homes, with food, water and shelter.

Donate to our Syria Crisis Appeal

What is happening in Ghouta?

The conflict in Syria has intensified over the last few weeks and months, with a horrifying situation unfolding in Eastern Ghouta. Hundreds of civilian deaths have been reported and the UN has said 400,000 people are trapped in the besieged neighbourhoods east of Damascus.

Alan Thomlinson, CAFOD’s Syria Crisis Programme Manager, said:

“We are outraged that civilians are being targeted by attacks on residential areas around Damascus. The devastating bombardment in Eastern Ghouta and Damascus is a stark reminder to us all that the conflict is not over in Syria.”

Read our statement on the situation in Ghouta

Read our statement on the alleged use of chemical weapons 

What is happening in Aleppo?

The northern Syrian city of Aleppo endured four years of conflict which culminated with intense bombing and fighting in November and December 2016. On 22 December 2016, the siege of East Aleppo came to an end and thousands of civilians were evacuated. 

Patrick Nicholson, Director of Communications for Caritas International, visited Aleppo and provided CAFOD with this account:

“The end of four years of fighting has diverted world attention from Aleppo. But if the city is at peace, it is the peace of the tomb. East Aleppo, where the government drove out opposition forces after fierce fighting and constant aerial bombardment, is an assault on the senses, a scene of unimaginable destruction. Yet there are people living in the ruins, mostly women and children.

“How they endure is hard to say. There is no electricity, heating, water, food or work. Not a school or hospital has been left standing – there is only rubble.

“Caritas is one of the few aid agencies operating here, providing a lifeline.”

Our Caritas partner on the ground is providing emergency support to residents in the east and west of Aleppo, reaching 35,000 people with distributions, counselling and education, medical and rent support. 

Donate to our Syria Crisis Appeal

How many refugees do regional countries host?

While Turkey hosts over 3 million Syrian refugees, four other Middle Eastern countries, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, also share the burden. These five countries are currently home to over 5 million Syrians. Lebanon hosts around 1 million refugees, currently; one person in every five in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. Jordan hosts 655,000 refugees, making up 10 per cent of its population. Iraq hosts around 246,000 refugees, while Egypt is home to around 126,000 refugees. There are also more than 30,000 Syrian refugees registered in North Africa.

There are around 20,000 refugees in Greece, many of whom are fleeing conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Find out more about the refugee crisis in Europe

What’s life like for Syrian refugees living in neighbouring countries?

The refugees are living wherever they can find shelter - in make-shift camps, cowsheds, derelict or half-built buildings, even in the open air. Children are often traumatised after seeing their parents killed or homes destroyed in front of them. They urgently need peace and the opportunity to go home and rebuild their lives.

How much has CAFOD’s Syria Crisis Appeal raised?

Since the launch of our Syria Crisis Appeal, the Catholic Community in England and Wales has donated more than £3.7 million, allowing us to continue to work with our partners to deliver emergency aid to tens of thousands of vulnerable Syrian families.

What does CAFOD believe is the solution to the Syrian civil war?

In a statement about the need for an inclusive peace process, CAFOD’s Syria Crisis Programme Manager said:

“As a member of the UN Security Council as well as the G8 group of leading economies, Britain must not only use all its influence to bring about a political settlement of the conflict, but must ensure that British foreign and domestic policy does not help to prolong it.

“This means that the international community should not set preconditions for peace talks, and those actively engaged in the conflict should not receive political or financial backing.

The UK Government also needs to ensure that Syrians from non-armed groups, including representatives of civil society, faith leaders and community groups, are part of a truly inclusive peace process.”

What can I do to help?

Donate to our Syria Crisis Appeal

Join us in praying for refugees around the world

Read and share our Lost Family Portraits stories 

Find out more about the crisis - use our resources for children and young people

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