Context and Humanitarian Impact
Syria remains one of the world’s most complex humanitarian emergencies characterized by ongoing hostilities which have killed hundreds of thousands of people, triggered one of the worst displacement crises of our time, and led to the widespread destruction of civilian and agricultural infrastructure, including homes, schools, health facilities, water supply and irrigation systems. Today, 13.4 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance - a 21 per cent increase compared to 2020 - with needs increasingly being exacerbated by economic decline.
The decade-long crisis has inflicted immense suffering on the civilian population who have experienced massive and systematic violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, including more than 1,350 attacks on education and medical facilities and related personnel, bombardment which has caused over 12 million people to flee their homes, and arbitrary detention, abduction, torture as well as other serious abuses. Almost 12,000 children have been killed or injured since 2011, and 47 per cent of young people have had a member of their immediate family or close friend die. With around half of Syria’s children having known nothing but a lifetime of crisis - 2.45 million of whom were estimated to be out of school in 2020 alone - an entire generation is at risk of being lost. Long-standing and deep-rooted trauma, much of which remains unaddressed, means a mental health crisis looms large. While large-scale hostilities have reduced compared to the peak of the crisis, with frontlines not having shifted in a year, frequent mutual shelling and rocket fire continues to be observed along contact lines, often causing civilian casualties.
The economy has experienced irreparable harm since the crisis began, with the gross domestic product having declined by 60 per cent and the government increasingly unable to raise sufficient revenue to subsidize essential commodities such as fuel and bread on which the most vulnerable families rely. The Syrian pound is in virtual freefall having lost 78 per cent of its value since October 2019, while price increases for staple goods are at an all-time high. More than 90 per cent of the population is now estimated to live below the poverty line. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this economic downturn by further reducing already sparse income-generating opportunities in a context where 50 per cent of the work age population is now estimated unemployed, and curtailing women and children’s access to critical services such as reproductive health and malnutrition screening. Remittances, on which millions of Syrians and particularly IDPs rely are understood to have halved, from US$1.6 billion in 2019 to US$800 million in 2020, due to global and regional economic contraction. COVID-19 has also impacted an already debilitated health system in which half of health facilities are partially or non-functional.
Humanitarian Conditions and Needs
Continued civilian casualties and forced displacement due to ongoing hostilities, in addition to reduced access to already degraded basic services, limited and inadequate housing and shelter options, and a wide array of specific protection risks and concerns continue to cause and perpetuate humanitarian needs among the population. While hostility-induced displacement in early 2020 generated additional needs amongst the population in Syria for internally displaced persons (IDPs), returnees and host communities, particularly in North-west Syria (NWS), the ripple effects of the economic downturn - including the loss of income and livelihoods, sharply reduced purchasing power and resulting financial unaffordability of food and other basic goods - have exacerbated living conditions for people who were already in humanitarian need, and have tipped previously less affected segments of the population into humanitarian need, including food insecurity, across the country.
The crisis continues to have a gendered impact, with women and adolescent girls paying a high price for harmful and discriminatory gender norms, including gender-based violence, while men and boys face elevated risks linked to arbitrary detention, forced conscription and explosive ordnance, among others.
The economic deterioration has financially squeezed families further. Eighty-two per cent of assessed households in Syria report a significant deterioration in their ability to meet basic needs since August 2019, due mainly to price increases and loss of income. With the WASH, health and education infrastructure considered poorly or non-functional in 48 per cent of all sub-districts, access to basic services is severely hampered and increasingly unaffordable. This is particularly the case for over 1.9 million IDPs sheltering in informal settlements, planned camps and collective shelters, which offer inadequate protection against the elements and increase the risk of epidemic-prone diseases among this population. At the same time millions of people across Syria continue to live in damaged housing, particularly along former frontlines, with those paying rent now struggling more than before to do so.
Facing deteriorated living standards, families are increasingly adopting harmful coping mechanisms. Seventy-one per cent of households and 75 per cent of female-headed households have taken on more debt since August 2019. Twenty-eight per cent of families now adopt ‘crisis’ or ‘emergency’ food related coping strategies, including withdrawing children from school to have them work instead, selling property, migrating due to lack of food and early child marriage. Twenty-two per cent of assessed communities report child labour as frequently occurring, while child marriage of young and adolescent girls (12-17 years) is reported by 18 per cent of assessed communities as a very common issue.
Worsening living standards and an increase in harmful coping strategies have led additional segments of the population to develop life-threatening physical and mental health needs. These include a 57 per cent increase in the number of food insecure people to 12.4 million (up from 7.9 million in early 2020). Of these, 1.27 million people are considered severely food insecure – twice as many as in early 2020. In line with this trend, malnutrition rates continue to peak, with more than 500,000 children under the age of five chronically malnourished and 90,000 acutely malnourished. Mental trauma is widespread and under-assessed but certain to have long-term implications across all population groups. Twenty- seven per cent of households report signs of psychological distress in boys and girls, almost double the 2020 figure (14 per cent). Critical protection needs persist and have been aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, including gender-based violence (GBV), with women and girls across the country reporting that it has become a feature of everyday life. One in two people in Syria is estimated to be at risk of explosive ordnance; needs for humanitarian mine action interventions, particularly survey and clearance activities, are therefore significant but currently not met at scale. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the country with nearly 47,000 cases confirmed in Syria, including at least 1,972 deaths as of mid-March 2021, further straining the health system and reducing people's access to both emergency and non-emergency care.
In 2021, the increased scope and inter-linked nature of humanitarians needs among the population in Syria requires a comprehensive response across all sectors to save lives, protect people and prevent further deprivation.