Syria crisis: After a decade of war, millions of refugees face threat of coronavirus

26 February 2021

CAFOD is responding to the Syria Crisis, and to the threat posed by coronavirus, after 10 years of a civil war that has now killed over half a million people.

Aid workers say this year’s winter has affected thousands of those living in informal camps with heavy flooding and bitterly low temperatures. The UN reported in late January 2021 how extensive flooding affected 121,000 people in 304 sites with more than 21,700 tents damaged or destroyed.

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 threat of coronavirus when many cannot socially distance, access healthcare, or even find clean water.

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"Ten years on, millions still cannot return to Syria. These families have limited prospects. They lack the means to settle and integrate in the areas to which they have fled, or to go elsewhere."

Hombeline Duliere, Emergency Programme Manager for CAFOD’s Syria response

What was the situation in Syria before coronavirus hit? 

The civil war in Syria has lasted a decade. The conflict is perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, and has killed over 500,000 people.

An estimated 6.5 million Syrians have been made homeless inside the country, and 5.6 million Syrians are registrered refugees in 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?

2020 saw some of the worst violence since the start of the conflict. Earlier in the year, military operations in north-west Syria in and around Idlib displaced nearly a million people, where there are some 2.7 million internally displaced people living in north-west Syria now. And today, about 12 million people across Syria need humanitarian assistance.

Many are struggling to even afford basic food items: according to the UN, prices of food and other essential items increased by more than 200 per cent as the value of the Syrian pound drops.

"We are expecting an explosion of coronavirus in the camps."

Mustafa, 28, a frontline worker supported by CAFOD

Coronavirus has 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.”

Frontline worker in a camp outside Idlib

Mustafa, 28, a frontline worker supported by CAFOD, lives in a camp outside Idlib with displaced people.

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 in unregistered camps in north-west Syria, for families who have fled the conflict. 
  • Give out PPE and hygiene items like soap to vulnerable families, along with advice on how they can protect themselves from coronavirus.
Rim, a mother living in the Syrian camps

Rim, a mother living in the Syrian camps

"Because of coronavirus, many organisations have stopped supporting our camp and neighbouring camps. Medical support has stopped, especially for children."

Rim

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. Malnutrition is becoming a serious issue with increasing numbers of families relying on food aid.
  • Many vulnerable people - often women and children - are more at risk. Cases of domestic violence have increased as women are forced to stay inside.
A lack of water and hygiene facilities in overcrowded camps means coronavirus could quickly be transmitted across northwest Syria.

A lack of water and hygiene facilities in overcrowded camps means coronavirus could quickly be transmitted across north-west Syria. 

Syria

Over 15,000 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in Syria by the World Health Organization, and over 1,000 deaths. And in north-west Syria, over 21,000 cases have been confirmed as of March 2021.

However, the aid community on the ground believes exact numbers far exceed official figures and that significant numbers of asymptomatic and mild cases are going undetected.

Despite many people choosing not to access healthcare, there is evidence that Covid-19 is overwhelming some services. In government-controlled areas more than 50% of its medical facilities are dysfunctional and Covid-19 has overstretched the limited capacity.

Despite the many challenges presented by the pandemic, CAFOD is already present and working in displacement camps and urban areas where humanitarian needs are high. Through our local experts, we are focusing on essential humanitarian services while ensuring the health and safety of staff, volunteers and communities are prioritised.

Lebanon

Over 380,000 cases of coronavirus have been reported in Lebanon, and 4,800 deaths. 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. Parts of the capital are still uninhabitable after the explosions that rocked Beirut on 4 August 2020.

Jordan

Over 400,000 cases of coronavirus have been found in Jordan, with over 4,700 deaths.

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.

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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 coronavirus – for them the priority is safety, and feeding their families.
  • More than three-quarters of Syrian refugees may be suffering serious mental health symptoms, 10 years after the start of the civil war.

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.

Hombeline Duliere, Emergency Programme Manager for CAFOD’s Syria response, warns that needs are still great:

“Ten years on, millions still cannot return to Syria,” she said. “These families have limited prospects. They lack the means to settle and integrate in the areas to which they have fled, or to go elsewhere.

“Within Syria, the fight is still for people’s basic needs. Many people work daily to alleviate suffering through humanitarian programmes, and call for the peace and reconciliation required to tackle the underlying causes of the crisis.

“But if the Syrian conflict is going to move towards the peaceful conclusion that so many hope for, then the international community must work together: to increase political and financial support, prioritise marginalised sections of society – in particular women and the young – and ensure that it is local organisations and people who lead the way.”

"For 10 years, we’ve listened to world leaders speak about peace, reconciliation, and rebuilding. For us living in Syria and the neighbouring countries, it is clear that for ​the country to heal, physical rebuilding alone will not be enough. Funding must also be used to heal the damage that we can’t see."

Hombeline Duliere, Emergency Programme Manager for CAFOD’s Syria response

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How is the crisis affecting women and girls in Syria?

Fadia, 29, is a Syrian architect working to rebuild houses in areas devastated by war. She believes that because of such experiences in the past decade, women are particularly committed to “building back better”, starting with education.

Yet, as the World Economic Forum reports, girls in conflict zones are almost two and a half times more likely to be out of school than boys. This figure climbs to 90 per cent by the time they reach secondary school age. More support is needed.

Fadia with a returning family in Syria

Fadia with a returning family in Syria.

“I always had the ambition to continue studying,” said Fadia. “When the war happened, everything became a bit harder. Women want to progress and improve – not just themselves, but their communities too."

Fadia, a local aid worker

Hombeline Duliere, Emergency Programme Manager for CAFOD’s Syria response, explains how the coronavirus crisis is also particularly affecting women in Syria:

"Over the past decade, as a UK charity, we’ve supported many civil society organisations including female-led initiatives that are working to help Syrians ​deal with the trauma of this brutal war. But, as world economies deal with the impact of coronavirus, it is getting more difficult to find funding, and much of this work is now in jeopardy."

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, 24, is one of over one million refugees who is living in Lebanon. She is walking down a street in Tripoli.

Aya, 24, is one of over one million refugees who is living in Lebanon. 

Aya is a youth volunteer at Caritas Lebanon and was 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.

Donate to the Coronavirus Appeal

Join us in praying for Syria

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