The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the plight of over 12 million Syrians driven from their homes during more than nine years of conflict, the British charity CAFOD has warned.
"More than six million Syrians are displaced within the country," said Howard Mollett, CAFOD's Head of Humanitarian Policy. "Another five million are registered as refugees in neighbouring countries, and over a million more have fled beyond, mainly to Europe. They are stuck in limbo, and Covid-19, combined with economic collapse, has made things even worse."
Mollett was speaking ahead of a top-level virtual conference in Brussels on the future of Syria. On June 30 around 80 delegates from neighbouring countries hosting Syrian refugees, partner countries, EU member states and international organisations will dial in to the meeting. The goal is to support UN-led efforts to create a lasting peace in Syria, and to pledge aid for Syrians.
But as the search for peace goes on, the CAFOD spokesman warned that research shows very few displaced Syrians see any chance of returning to their homes or their old way of life in the foreseeable future. Apart from the pandemic and economic decline, the factors which led them to flee in the first place - conflict and risk of persecution - remain.
"As an internally displaced man in north-east Syria told us, 'We live in the unknown and head towards the unknown,'" said Mollett.
Taking the Syrian's comment for its title, a report by 12 international and Syrian NGOs - 'Into the unknown: Listening to Syria's Displaced in the Search for Durable Solutions - calls on donor governments, including the UK, to reaffirm protection of civilians at the Brussels conference. Deportations of refugees to Syria, or pressure on them to return, should be resisted. Returns should only take place when international safety standards are met and can be monitored.
"With the Syrian conflict in its tenth year, less than five per cent of the refugee population in the region have returned to Syria or been resettled in other countries," said Mollett. "And Covid-19 is making a very difficult life even harder for the other 95 per cent. They have suffered harsher restrictions than others during lockdown, and the crisis is adding to the stigma and discrimination they can face."
Local NGOs are playing a leading role in helping those worse affected by the Syrian conflict and the Covid-19 pandemic. Caritas Jordan, a local aid agency supported by CAFOD, enabled GPs to remain in touch with patients during lockdown, and get medicine to them, using approaches subsequently taken up by the UN. Another local aid agency, Darna, is playing a leading role in getting PPE and hygiene equipment to camps in northern Syria, where displaced Syrian families had to settle after fleeing conflicts.
But local aid bodies were not getting the right kind of funding to keep staff and react to the new risks and needs caused by the pandemic, according to the CAFOD spokesman. "The Brussels conference should strongly commit to providing greater flexibility and longer-term funding to local NGOs working at the front lines," he said.
Find the full report here: 'Into the unknown: Listening to Syria's Displaced in the Search for Durable Solutions.