The Syrian complex humanitarian emergency (CHE) is characterized by nearly 13 years of ongoing hostilities and their long-term effects, including large-scale internal and cross-border displacement, widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure and significant violations of international humanitarian law.
In 2024, 16.7 million people will need humanitarian assistance across Syria, up from 15.3 million in 2023, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). In addition to ongoing hostilities, the country’s persistent economic crisis and the series of earthquakes that hit northwest Syria in February 2023 increase people’s vulnerability and slow recovery.
On Oct. 24, 2023, Paulo Pinheiro, Chair of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, said to the UN General Assembly, “Today I stand before you to say we are witnessing the largest escalation of hostilities in Syria in four years. Yet again there appears to be total disregard for civilians lives in what are often tit for tat reprisals.”
The UN Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Syria told the Security Council on Dec. 21, 2023, that violence is raging in all theatres of Syria. Analysis from The New Humanitarian says the war in Gaza may worsen humanitarian operations in Syria. The country’s CHE is one of four overlapping crises in the region that strain humanitarian agencies.
(Photo Source: Bo Viktor Nylund/ UNICEF MENA)
In December 2023, 494 trucks carrying humanitarian supplies passed through Bab Al-Hawa, 52 through Bab Al-Salam and one through Al-Rai. On Nov. 13, 2023, Syria reportedly approved the renewal of the three-month authorization for aid to travel through the Bab Al-Salam and Al-Rai border crossings.
In January 2024, several aid agencies issued a statement raising concerns “over the vulnerability and long-term sustainability of the modality.” Currently, access through Bab Al-Hawa depends on the Syrian government’s approval, which has occurred in six-month periods.
In 2011, peaceful protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government eventually escalated into a civil war between the Syrian government and anti-government rebel groups. The conflict includes many different actors with varying motivations, including foreign governments and extremist organizations such as the Islamic State. A monthslong effort to reintegrate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into the politics and economics of the region was capped by Assad’s appearance at the Arab League summit on May 19, 2023.
The country of Turkey is recognized in English as Türkiye by the United Nations.
- In 2024, 16.7 million people will need humanitarian assistance across Syria, up from 15.3 million in 2023. Of the 16.7 million people in need, 5.5 million are displaced.
- In Syria, 8.8 million people lived in areas most affected by the earthquake. Overall, 170 sub-districts in 43 districts in 10 of Syria’s governorates were impacted by the earthquake.
- According to the World Bank’s Global Rapid Post-Disaster Damage Estimation Report for Syria, direct damages from the earthquakes are estimated at $5.1 billion.
- 12.1 million people are food insecure. Acute malnutrition among children is growing.
- According to a report from the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 72 civilians were killed in Syria in January 2024 as well as five individuals who died due to torture.
- The UN says that between March 2011 and March 2021, more than 350,000 people were killed in the Syrian conflict. However, the number of people killed is believed to be higher. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented more than 494,000 fatalities during this same period.
Climatic shocks and natural hazards
The winter season in northwest Syria brings the risk of extreme weather, including cold temperatures, snowstorms, rain and heavy wind. Approximately 1.99 million IDPs live in sites that often lack sufficient shelter, infrastructure and basic services.
In preparation to respond to these challenges, the Inter-Cluster Coordination Group produced an updated Winterization and Flood Preparedness Response Plan, which outlines primary needs and options for minimizing the impact of flooding. CDP’s Ice, Snow and Extreme Cold Issue Insight provides information about this hazard and recommendations for funders.
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that occurred in Turkey on Feb. 6, 2023, resulted in devastating and deadly outcomes in Syria and worsened the humanitarian situation in the country’s northwest.
The earthquake, a natural hazard, is devastating on its own. However, in the broader context of the Syrian CHE, the earthquake is a massive catastrophe because it exacerbated underlying vulnerabilities and complicated disaster recovery. For more information on this disaster, see CDP’s 2023 Turkey-Syria Earthquake disaster profile.
Source: The Guardian
Following the Feb. 6 earthquake, a dam collapsed in northwestern Syria, causing the overflow of the Orontes River. The flood led to the displacements of people from the village of Al-Tlul in Idlib governorate.
Approximately 7,000 people were evacuated, and 1,000 houses flooded across the nearby villages of Hardana, Delbiya, Jakara and Hamziyeh. The flood was an example of an indirect and cascading disaster impact that humanitarians must account for while trying to minimize risk as they provide assistance and begin earthquake recovery.
Syria saw its worst drought in 70 years in 2021, which affected access to drinking water, electricity generation and irrigation. The water crisis was particularly damaging for the country’s wheat harvest, with a loss in production of more than 1 million tons in 2021 compared to the previous year.
The long-running war has severely damaged and neglected infrastructure, but the water situation is exacerbated by the impacts of climate change and other weather events. In 2023, an estimated 52% of Syrians rely on often unsafe alternatives to piped water. Water deficits have been exacerbated by unusually dry conditions during the wet season and by abnormally high air temperatures.
According to the IFRC situation report, “This deterioration in water resources and their scarcity, which are exacerbated by climate crises, have generated tensions in the local community regarding access to water points, agricultural lands, and pastures, especially since these communities rely primarily on agriculture as a source of income and life.”
Socio-economic conditions have been deteriorating rapidly in Syria, with the depreciation of the local currency leading to inflation that worsens food insecurity and pushes people into poverty. According to the World Bank, between 2010 and 2019, Syria’s GDP shrunk by more than half.
The country’s debilitating economic crisis severely affects Syrian families. According to a local economist, quoted by UNOCHA in an update published on Jan. 3, 2024, “The decline in income has led to the disappearance of much of the wealthy class into the middle class, most of the middle class into the poor class, and most of the poor class into the destitute class, a class that did not exist before 2010 except in a small percentage.”
The inflation and currency woes were exacerbated by the February 2023 earthquakes, which damaged roads, supermarkets and bakeries. In their reporting on the hunger and economic situation in Syria, The New Humanitarian said on June 6, 2023, “Most basic goods are imported from Türkiye, and inflation in the lira (plus higher prices because of the long-lasting impacts of the war in Ukraine) has hurt everyone who depends on a fixed income, as monthly food aid and wages now buy far less than they used to. By one estimate, prices have shot up 66% across the whole of Idlib province over the past year.”
There are an estimated 5.5 million IDPs in Syria, with 2.7 million in northwest Syria. In November 2023, around 9,700 IDP movements were tracked across Syria, approximately 88% less than in October 2023. Most IDP movements were concentrated in northwest Syria.
The Feb. 6, 2023 earthquakes and aftershocks have caused ongoing displacement. In northwest Syria, more than 57,000 displacements were recorded between Feb. 6 and Feb. 13 after the earthquakes. The earthquake affected people already displaced in addition to causing new displacements, which are a significant change in people’s way of life, perhaps including loss of livelihood, extreme poverty and damaged social support structure.
More than 11 years of ongoing hostilities have led millions of Syrians to flee the country in search of safety and basic needs. As of Jan. 18, 2024, 5,100,177 Syrian refugees were formally registered in neighboring countries. Just over 62% of these refugees were in Turkey. In November 2023, around 2,700 spontaneous IDP return movements were recorded. The returns refer to IDP spontaneous returns and do not necessarily follow the global definitions of “Returnees” or durable solutions for IDPs.
Syria also had 16,880 registered refugees and asylum seekers as of December 2023. It is important to note that Syria is not a party to the 1951 Convention and has not enacted refugee or asylum-specific legislation.
According to Syria’s 2024 Humanitarian Needs Overview, at least 12.9 people across Syria need food assistance. By October 2023, the food basket cost had doubled compared to January and had quadrupled in two years.
Near the 100-day mark since the earthquakes, Save the Children said the disaster threatened to push at least another 665,000 Syrians into hunger, with doctors and aid agencies warning that levels of child stunting and maternal malnutrition are reaching levels never seen before.
Maintaining sufficient funding to address food insecurity in the country has been an ongoing challenge. On June 13, 2023, WFP said it would be forced to end food assistance to 2.5 million Syrians in July if donors did not provide at least $180 million to fund programs through 2023.
On Dec. 4, 2023, WFP announced it would end its main assistance program in Syria in January 2024. Syria Direct reported on WFP ending its food assistance program, which WFP said had served Syrian families nationwide for over a decade.
A deadly cholera outbreak has been spreading in Syria where a shortage of clean water, dense living conditions and few healthcare facilities provide the opportunity for the disease to thrive.
On March 8, 2023, WHO and partners announced the start of a cholera vaccination campaign in earthquake-hit areas of northwest Syria. Since the cholera outbreak was first declared in Syria on Sept. 10, 2022, more than 50,000 suspected cases have been reported in both Idlib and Aleppo governorates, of which 18% of suspected cases were from IDP camps.
According to WHO and humanitarian partners, “The devastating earthquake had a significant impact on the cholera response operations. The earthquake affected access to services, reduced partner capacity, diverted already limited funds available, and also affected negatively the mental health of the workforce.”
In their Weekly Epidemiological Bulletin covering the week of Dec. 11-17, 2023, WHO reported a total of nine acute watery diarrhea (suspected cholera) cases for the week. Since the start of the outbreak, more than 11,000 cases have been reported.
The cholera outbreak makes more apparent and more urgent the need to repair damaged water networks, improve communities’ access to safe drinking water and provide safer sanitation options. The earthquake damaged some of the remaining functioning water sources. Repairs to newly damaged sources and networks will be challenging but critical to reduce the risk of an increase in waterborne diseases after the disaster.
In October 2023, northern Syria experienced a significant escalation in hostilities. Shelling impacted almost 40 health facilities. A research snapshot produced by ELRHA and released in August 2023 demonstrates the long-lasting, cumulative impacts that result from attacks on Syria’s health system. “These are found at every level of the health system including the health workforce, and health service utilisation by communities.”
In addition to physical health impacts, mental health impacts persist. Millions of people have endured years of violence and displacement, which are serious traumatic events. In a story published in January 2024, Médecins Sans Frontières described the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder they witnessed in one camp in northeast Syria.
Food and cash assistance
High food prices and lower-than-average agricultural yields, compounded by ongoing inflation, exacerbate food insecurity in Syria.
A combination of emergency food products, food rations, food vouchers and cash transfers for food are needed to meet the diversity of nutritional needs of affected people.
The CALP Network published a report on the scale-up of cash coordination for the Syria earthquake response in October 2023. While identifying challenges in the response, the report also “found an effective cash coordination steered by a well-organized cash working group sharing timely and clear guidance to its members and across sectors.”
The Center for Disaster Philanthropy recommends cash both as a donation method and a recovery strategy. Direct cash assistance can allow families to purchase items and services that address their multiple needs. It gives each family flexibility and choice, ensuring that support is relevant and timely. Cash-based approaches to disaster recovery also give people the freedom to choose how they rebuild their lives and provide a pathway to economic empowerment.
Access to water and sanitation
Nearly 13 years of war has damaged infrastructure, and climate change exacerbates the situation. Families are forced to depend on water delivered by truck, which is expensive and often cost-prohibitive. Access to clean water and sanitation will be an ongoing need in the country.
Insufficient rainfall during drought can lead to harvest and income losses, an increase in waterborne diseases and protection risks. The cholera outbreak makes clearer and more urgent the need to repair damaged water networks, improve communities’ access to safe drinking water and provide safer sanitation options.
Health care access and quality have severely deteriorated after years of conflict, an economic crisis, and reduced donor funding. The water crisis has forced families and aid organizations to truck in water, which is becoming more costly due to rising fuel and electricity prices.
Following the devastating earthquakes, the risk of an increase in waterborne diseases, including cholera, was very high due to over-crowded settings and is an ongoing need as the disaster enters long-term recovery. There is also extensive damage to water and sanitation infrastructure and damage and disruption to cholera treatment infrastructure that require support.
Syrian refugees living in Turkey and those who cross the border for health care also need health services. According to the Syria Health Cluster, 74% of antenatal care visits in 2022 were cross-border visits.
Hospitals in Syria have been subjected to airstrikes, missile attacks and shelling, resulting in fewer patient consultations, loss of health-related infrastructure and increased risks for health workers. Health workers in Syria have been targeted and face risks to their lives. Supporting these workers and providing them with the protection and equipment required to treat people is critical.
After enduring 12 years of conflict and devastating earthquakes, mental health and psychosocial support for people in Syria is a critical need.
The Shelter Cluster released its 2023-2024 shelter and non-food item winterization advocacy note, which said, “Winters have become more unpredictable, with longer durations and unprecedented severe low temperatures. Additionally, snow storms are hitting further, exacerbating the needs.”
The advocacy note recommends the following life-saving supplies for winter response: heating fuel and stoves, winter clothes kits and winterization kits that include thermal blankets and carpets. Also, cash is the most preferred way to support winter response because it supports diverse needs.
Following the February 2023 earthquakes housing reconstruction will be required. However, such reconstruction will be challenging given the complexity of Syria’s crisis and the various authorities that control parts of the country.
According to the Syria earthquake Flash Appeal, “The earthquake has not only resulted in additional displacement due to damaged/unsafe shelter but has also diminished the prospects for safe return of IDPs originally from earthquake-affected areas. Safe shelter will be one of the main needs in the aftermath of the earthquake.”
A report from the Protection Cluster and UNHCR released on Dec. 28, 2023, “underscores the urgent need for improved and consistent management, standardized facilities, and a more inclusive approach across all shelters to address the complex challenges faced by persons with disabilities in the region.”
Addressing the ongoing needs in Syria equitably and inclusively means ensuring the most marginalized populations are included in decision-making and activities recognize their capacities while also meeting their unique needs.
The Center for Disaster Philanthropy has a Global Recovery Fund that provides donors an efficient, flexible solution to support recovery efforts for people affected by sudden and slow-onset disasters or protracted humanitarian emergencies worldwide.
(Photo: Shukran returned to her home in Deir ez-Zor a year ago. She received training and support for small projects from UNHCR and is now able to provide for her family’s needs. Source: UN Refugee Agency in Syria via Twitter.)
Philanthropic and government support
CDP, through its COVID-19 Response Fund, awarded $200,000 to Medair in 2020 to support national efforts to reduce COVID-19 transmission in Lebanon and Sudan. In Lebanon, Medair provided technical support to staff working in triage and isolation centers, training for community health workers and information dissemination to counter myths about the virus in the Bekaa Valley, where many Syrian refugees lived.
Syria’s 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) sought $4.81 billion to reach 13 million of the 15.3 million people in need. As of Jan. 7, 2024, donors had funded 37.4% of the HRP. The response plan funding requirements have grown nearly annually since 2012, demonstrating the significant and growing humanitarian needs in the country.
On June 15, 2023, a European Union-hosted conference in Brussels led to pledges of $6.13 billion to support people inside Syria and neighboring countries hosting Syrian refugees in 2023 and 2024. UN agencies and humanitarians had hoped for similar pledges to the $6.7 billion offered for Syria at the 2022 conference.
More ways to help
As with most disasters and emergencies, cash donations are recommended by disaster experts as they allow for on-the-ground agencies to direct funds to the most significant area of need, support local economic recovery and ensure material donations do not detract from disaster recovery needs.
Donors can help in the following ways:
- Provide unrestricted core funding for vetted humanitarian NGO partners that support the HRP. This is an efficient way to ensure the best use of resources in a coordinated manner. Funding the NGOs that have contributed to the HRP ensures that resources are directed to support the plan and use humanitarian partners’ best knowledge.
- Understand that recovery is possible in protracted and complex crisis settings. Even while focusing on immediate needs, remember that there are early and long-term recovery needs, too. We know that people who have been affected by shocks in complex humanitarian contexts can recover, improve their situation and build their resilience to withstand future shocks without waiting until the crisis is over, which may take years. Recovery is possible, and funding will be needed for recovery and resilience efforts alongside humanitarian funding. Recovery will take a long time, and funding will be needed now and throughout.
- Prioritize investments in local organizations. Local humanitarian leaders and organizations play a vital role in providing immediate relief and setting the course for long-term equitable recovery in communities after a disaster or throughout a complex humanitarian crisis. However, these leaders and organizations are mostly under-resourced and underfunded. Grant to locally-led entities as much as possible.
- Recognize there are places and ways that private philanthropy can help that other donors may not. Private funders can support nimble and innovative solutions that leverage or augment the larger humanitarian system response, either filling gaps or modeling change that, once tested and proven, can be taken to scale within the broader humanitarian response structure. Philanthropy can also provide sustainable funding to national and local organizations that support needed operational costs.
Complex Humanitarian Emergencies
CHEs involve an acute emergency layered over ongoing instability. Multiple scenarios can cause CHEs, like the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the man-made political crisis in Venezuela, or the public health crisis in Congo.
The Latin root of “resilience” means to bounce back, but every field has its own definition and most individuals within each discipline will define it differently. Learn more.
Striking without warning, earthquakes often are among the most devastating disasters. Caused by the movement of plates along fault lines on the earth’s surface, earthquakes often leave a monumental path of instant death and destruction.