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Refugees, COVID and conflict: what action can Ireland take for the future of Syria?

30 June 2020

As Ireland joins world leaders to discuss the future of Syria this week, action is badly needed to protect refugees and rebuild a country devastated by a decade of conflict, now facing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Maya, 10, is a Syrian refugee who has fled the war and lives with her family in the Beqaa valley in Lebanon. In the background are her brothers and sisters. Photo : Simon Walsh / Trócaire.

With the conflict entering its 10th year, the situation in Syria and the region remains highly critical. There is a devastating humanitarian crisis, with half the population of Syria having being forced from their homes.

The heavy impact of the war has been compounded by economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Thankfully case numbers are still relatively low, although given Syria’s decimated health system, testing capacity is very low, and the virus may be more widespread than thought.

Furthermore, the economic impact is potentially even more devastating than the virus itself. As lockdown restrictions cripple economies already in crisis, many Syrians and Lebanese are now facing extreme hardship.

With so many challenges facing Syria, action from the international community is badly needed. This week, EU countries together with the UN are discussing the future of Syria. This is an important opportunity for Ireland to argue for urgent action for Syria’s future.

Can refugees safely return home?

There are still no guarantees for voluntary, safe and dignified return of refugees to Syria. Refugees are under significant pressure to return to Syria while the conditions for their return in safety and dignity remain absent.

Yet for most refugees it is simply not safe enough yet to go back to Syria. Extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, and other human rights violations continue to be reported.

In Lebanon, only 22% of Syrians aged over 15 years have legal residency, and Syrian refugee women are ten times less likely to have legal documentation than their male counterparts. This puts their future status in question. In the last year, Lebanon decided to deport more than 2,700 Syrians.

For those who cannot return, either because of continued conflict, wars or persecution, resettlement in another country may be the only option. Ireland needs to argue that EU member states should increase the number of resettlement places for Syrian refugees.

How do we get humanitarian aid to those trapped in conflict?

Hostilities in Syria continue to endanger the lives of millions of Syrians. An escalation of hostilities in northwest Syria earlier this year put roughly four million people at risk. Close to one million people fled their homes.

Getting humanitarian aid to these people caught in conflict is essential. Cross border access has been essential to get aid, services and workers in to these affected areas. The UN Security Council has been able to guarantee this cross-border aid delivery through a mechanism called resolution 2504. This resolution expires this month, and it is essential that Ireland pushes for it to be extended for 12 months.

Ireland should also push for the EU to use its influence for a lasting ceasefire which protects civilians. We also need to demand accountability for the atrocities that have been committed and are still ongoing.

How do we support Syrians to cope with the impact of COVID-19?

On top of the immediate public health emergency, the pandemic is also deepening an economic and social crisis. Lebanon is currently experiencing the worst economic crisis of its history. Rampant inflation coupled with growing unemployment has thrown almost half the population below the poverty line. This is having a devastating impact on Syrian refugees in the country. Many refugee families are struggling to provide for their families.

According to one of our local partners, Women Now for Development and Aid, approximately 40% of refugee women in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley have recently lost their jobs due to the pandemic. There have also been reports of a significant increase in the number of cases of sexual and gender-based violence.

To protect vulnerable communities, Ireland needs to argue strongly for an increase in overseas aid to countries like Lebanon, so that they can address the COVID-19 crisis and the economic impacts which are hitting refugees so badly.

Ireland can make a difference

This week’s conference is an important opportunity for Ireland to use its influence within the EU. Ireland has a strong track record on speaking out on the Syria conflict, and Ireland’s recent election to the UN Security Council gives us additional influence.

Given the scale of the humanitarian crisis and the needs of people affected by Syria’s devastating conflict, it is imperative that Ireland makes a difference on this critical issue.

To read in more detail, include all of Trócaire’s policy recommendations for the Irish government, please download our briefing document "Supporting the future of Syria and the region"

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