Syria crisis: Millions of refugees face new threat from coronavirus
22 July 2020
CAFOD’s local partners in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan are responding to the Syria Crisis and to the effects of coronavirus.
Millions of homeless Syrians don't have a safe place to live, enough to eat or drink, or a way to earn a living for their families.
Now they face the new threat of coronavirus when many cannot socially distance, access healthcare, or even find clean water.
What was the situation before coronavirus hit?
The civil war in Syria has lasted over nine years. The conflict is perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, and has killed over 500,000 people.
An estimated 6.2 million Syrians have been made homeless inside the country, and 11.7 million people in Syria need urgent humanitarian aid – food, water and shelter.
Over 5.6 million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries. Lebanon and Jordan host the highest number of refugees per capita in the world. Lebanon hosts around 1.5 million refugees currently, meaning that one person in every four in Lebanon is a refugee.
Many of these refugees live in makeshift camps, derelict buildings, or even in the open air. Children are often traumatised after seeing their family members and friends killed or their homes destroyed in front of them.
What is happening in northern Syria?
Attacks and bombardments in northern Syria have become much worse in the last year. Hundreds of civilians are reported to have been injured or killed, and vital services, including hospitals and clinics, have been destroyed. Many have fled their homes and are living in temporary camps.
"We are expecting an explosion of coronavirus in the camps."
Mustafa, 28, a frontline worker supported by CAFOD
Coronavirus has now been reported in camps in northern Syria. Our local partners on the ground are reporting urgent concerns about the risks of the virus spreading, as vulnerable people are unable to take the basic measures to protect themselves.
Mustafa, 28, a frontline worker supported by CAFOD, lives in a camp outside Idlib with displaced people. He said:
“My heart is beating so hard; we are expecting an explosion of coronavirus in the camps. The coming days are really critical for us. Doctors are preparing for the spread of the virus. People live in large overcrowded settlements in tents with maybe 12 people and no access to clean water. It will be a catastrophe. Disaster. Please help them.”
CAFOD is supporting a partner organisation to respond to coronavirus in the camps in north-west Syria. It is an area where few other agencies are currently operating due to the situation.
Your support is helping to:
- Build new toilets, handwashing sinks and a laundry tub at 15 unregistered camps in north-west Syria, for families who have fled the conflict.
- Give out PPE, soap and period packs to vulnerable families, along with advice on how they can protect themselves from coronavirus.
"Because of coronavirus, many organisations have stopped supporting our camp and neighbouring camps. Medical support has stopped, especially for children."
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 has been the impact of coronavirus in Syria and the surrounding region?
The situation in the region was already bad before coronavirus hit, and the pandemic has now made things worse.
Lockdown and travel restrictions have meant that:
- Families are suffering from a massive loss in income as people are unable to work, leading to an increase in hunger as people struggle to afford food.
- Many vulnerable people - often women and children - are more at risk. Cases of domestic violence have increased as women are forced to stay inside.
Almost 400 cases of coronavirus have been identified, but it is likely that there are many more not yet reported.
Of the 111 public hospitals in Syria, only 57 public hospitals (64%) are fully functioning. There is a considerable shortage of trained staff and a high turnover rate, reducing capacity to manage cases. Up to 70% of health workers have already left the country. There is real worry for people living in camps in northern Syria where overcrowding makes social distancing almost impossible.
Despite the many challenges presented by the pandemic, CAFOD are already present and working in refugee and displacement camps. Through our local experts, we are focusing on essential humanitarian services while ensuring the health and safety of staff, volunteers and communities are prioritised.
Nearly 2,000 cases of coronavirus have been reported in Lebanon, and fear of its spread means refugees are at risk of discrimination from local populations. Some refugee families are scared that reporting coronavirus symptoms to the authorities will put them at risk of being deported back to Syria.
Coronavirus has added to an existing political and economic crisis, putting further stress on people as they struggle to cope in their daily lives. Many are surviving by eating less food and sinking further into debt.
Nearly 1,000 cases of coronavirus have been found in Jordan, where Syrian refugees are no longer able to receive free healthcare.
How is CAFOD responding in the countries affected by coronavirus and the conflict in Syria?
Through CAFOD’s extensive community network, we are well placed to provide aid in some of the worst-hit and most inaccessible areas. Many of the aid workers, priests and volunteers we support are operating at great risk to their own safety, so we cannot share all the details of their life-saving work.
The Catholic community of England and Wales have donated an incredible £3.9 million to our Syria crisis appeal. In addition to this, Syria programmes have greatly benefited from emergency funding provided by the Coronavirus Appeal.
Thanks to this generosity, we have been able to provide vital emergency aid – food, shelter and medical care – to vulnerable families affected by coronavirus inside Syria and in neighbouring countries.
Our local experts have been quick to adapt their long-term work, and are continuing to:
- Shelter rehabilitation so that people can remain indoors.
- Provide PPE including hygiene kits as well as clean water to prevent the spread of the virus.
- Distribute food baskets and emergency cash assistance to families impacted by the virus.
- Construct handwashing stations in refugee camps so that people can access hygiene facilities.
- Hold awareness sessions on coronavirus prevention.
- Ensure that education for children and adults can continue through remote learning.
- Adapt our projects that teach leadership and other skills to women affected by the conflict so that this work can continue safely.
What does the future hold for people living in Syria and the surrounding region?
The future does not look bright:
- The economic crisis will hit the poorest and most vulnerable communities the hardest.
- There will be a dramatic increase in the need and number of people who are relying on humanitarian assistance.
- Many will be more concerned about hunger than the virus – for them the priority is safety, and feeding their families.
While lockdown in the UK slowly eases, the situation in the Middle East remains very difficult. It is important to remember the people of Syria and all those affected by the conflict and pandemic.
What’s life like for young Syrian refugees living in neighbouring countries?
Aya, 24, is one of the more than 1 million Syrian refugees living in neighbouring Lebanon. It is still a distant dream for Aya and her family to think about returning home.
“In Syria, I studied, I had lots of friends and did lots of activities outside of school,” she said.
“We came just to spend the summer in Lebanon but then the crisis happened, and we’ve been here for seven years. We have little hope of returning home. And for a young person like me, there are few opportunities.
"I’m here [in Lebanon] caught in the middle of this conflict.”
Aya is part of the ‘Youth Resolve’ project, supported by CAFOD and the EU MADAD Trust Fund. It offers young Syrian and Lebanese people the chance to bridge the divide through job skills training, education and community activities such as renovating homes in their communities.
The project, which launched in 2017, has involved young people aged nine to 25 in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, reaching more than 100,000 people.
What can I do to help?
Donating to our Coronavirus Appeal allows us to continue adapting and delivering our life-saving projects in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.