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Syria war enters its tenth year as first COVID-19 case confirmed

23 March 2020

As conflict reaches grim milestone, half the population of Syria have fled their homes and now face the risk of COVID-19 spreading in camps

60 year old Abd Al Naseeh looks out at the destruction in the Syrian city of Homs. Photo : Caritas Internationalis

This month, the war in Syria enters its tenth year. The human cost of this war is truly shocking. Yesterday the first case of COVID-19 was detected, which now risks compounding the humanitarian catastrophe here.

Of a population of 22 million people, nearly six million people have been forced out of Syria as refugees. Over six million have been displaced inside Syria.

Could you imagine if half the population of Ireland was forced to leave their homes due to conflict?

This conflict has taken a huge toll. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed during the conflict. Almost 5 million children have been born in Syria in the last decade knowing only war.

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There is also a common misconception that the war has ended. Yet the violence continues. Indeed Syria has experienced fierce fighting in recent months as the Government of Syria tries to recapture the last opposition-held area.

In the last four months alone, almost one million people have been displaced from their homes in north west Syria. Heavy bombardments and ground offensives by the Government of Syria and its allies have emptied entire towns. 88 civilian areas were struck in January 2020 alone. This includes displacement camps, hospitals, schools, markets, bakeries, water and power plants, and places of worship.

Civilians fleeing from the recent escalation of hostilities in Idlib province in north Syria.

Daily life for Syrian refugees

As well as the hardships endured due to ongoing conflict within Syria, life is very challenging for Syrian refugees. Millions are living in camps for years on end.

If you are one of the one million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, this is most likely your daily reality:

  • You will live on less than US$3 per day. 73% of refugees live below the poverty line.
  • You probably don’t work. Only one-third of refugees have a regular job. For women this is even lower at 11%.
  • You depend on borrowing money - nine out of every 10 households are heavily in debt.
  • You are dependent on humanitarian aid.
  • Your living conditions are dire - over half of refugee families are living in overcrowded and unsuitable shelters.

Given these dire conditions, many refugees want to return back to their homes in Syria. However for the majority it isn’t possible for these reasons:

  • It is likely that your home either has been destroyed during the conflict, or is occupied.
  • You fear for your safety if you return. There is political and sectarian harassment and violence. You risk being disappeared or killed.
  • You face forced military conscription.
  • Women face rape at the hands of various militia groups on all sides.

There are no assurances of safety. There is no meaningful peace process, and there is no accountability for war crimes. Without these it will be very difficult for the 12 million Syrians to return home safely.

Much of Syria has been destroyed, and many refugees no longer have any homes to return to. Photo : Caritas Internationalis.

The threat of COVID-19

Compounding this existing humanitarian crisis, the region is now braced for the impact of COVID-19. Syria’s neighbour Iran has one of the worst outbreaks in the world, and now the first case has been confirmed inside Syria. After nine years of conflict, Syria’s health system, which is vital for combating COVID-19, has been decimated.

Neighbouring Lebanon, which hosts over a million refugees from Syria, has already reported hundreds of cases and a number of deaths. The country is entering lockdown. Lebanon is already in the middle of a severe economic crisis and is almost bankrupt.

For refugees living in crowded camps and informal settlements, self-isolation is virtually impossible. Water access varies across camps and settlements. The basic preventative measure of frequent hand washing is a serious challenge.  This leaves refugees worried of the virus spreading rapidly.

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Providing hope in the darkness

Trócaire has been responding to the Syria crisis since the conflict began. We provide humanitarian assistance both in Syria and with refugees living in Lebanon. We have provided food, shelter, and basic household items.

Trauma from the conflict is also a huge issue, and we provide counselling and psychosocial support to affected families. We also support people with skills and vocational training to help them begin to rebuild their lives. 

Trocaire partner SAWA  provide a ‘Safe Haven’ centre for refugee families. Children get to do art, play games, receive psychological support and meet other children. Photo: Simon Walsh/ Trócaire.

We also urge the EU and Ireland to do more. We need to welcome more refugees. We need to question why we have erected a wall against the hundreds of thousands fleeing this awful conflict.

Trócaire stands in solidarity with the millions affected by the Syrian conflict and with our partners who are working tirelessly to serve those in need. Despite the ongoing conflict and the threat of COVID-19, these brave women and men continue their work on the ground. We will continue to respond to the Syria crisis and support refugees in Lebanon.

As the crisis enters its tenth year, we will be there as long as needed.

This year, Trócaire’s Lent campaign will help to support women around the world who are struggling to protect their families from intimidation, violence, hunger and drought.

You can donate online or by phoning:
1850 408 408 (Republic of Ireland)
0800 912 1200 (Northern Ireland).

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