What’s next for the millions of internally displaced Syrians? A month-long reporting series from Syria Direct

Rebel fighters and their families arrive in rural northern Aleppo in April. Nazeer al-Khatib/AFP. 

After seven years of war, one image in particular has become a potent symbol of the mass displacement unfolding throughout Syria: the government’s green evacuation buses, often sent into areas retaken by Bashar al-Assad and his allies to remove fighters and civilians alike to opposition-held territories up north.

But Syria’s displacement crisis isn’t solely the story of these green buses and the thousands of evacuees onboard.

The UN counts more than six million people internally displaced across all regions of Syria, including more than two million children, as well as five million refugees now scattered across neighboring countries, Europe and beyond—making Syrians the largest displaced population in the world.

More than one million Syrians are concentrated in displacement camps and privately rented dwellings in the northwest’s rural, rebel-held Idlib province. Even before the war, medical and social services were in short supply there.

Millions of others live dispersed across Syria: in the Turkish-occupied north, in northeastern camps controlled by the US-backed, majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), deep within government-held territory and beyond. The result has been a seismic population shift that risks permanently altering Syria’s social fabric long after the fighting dies down.

Syria’s internal displacement crisis isn’t new—residents have been fleeing their homes since the very beginning of the conflict. But today, with a pro-government military campaign on the last major rebel-held territory in Idlib province seemingly imminent, questions over the fate of the country’s millions of displaced have once again been brought to the fore.

Over the course of the next month, Syria Direct, in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, will work with a team of six internally displaced Syrian journalists on the ground: two in Idlib province, two in the Turkish-occupied north, one in the SDF-held Euphrates River city of Tabqa and one in Rukban, a remote desert displacement camp on the Syrian-Jordanian border. The goal of this project is to both inform readers and at the same time train aspiring young journalists to produce objective, well-rounded coverage of the war’s impact on their own communities.

Here we bring you a primer on the challenges facing Syria’s millions of internally displaced people.

Q: Millions have been displaced internally and outside Syria’s borders since 2011. Has the nature of displacement changed during the course of the Syrian conflict?

Since the opening salvos of the Syrian uprising and ensuing conflict in 2011, people have fled their homes to escape repression and violence, moving their families into areas of relative calm away from the battlelines. By the end of 2012, up to two million people had already been displaced across Syria. The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR) started providing services to civilians displaced throughout the country that same year.

A major shift in government tactics began in late 2015, when Russia entered the conflict and brought the world’s second largest airforce to the aid of the teetering central government in Damascus. The radical change in fortunes allowed Damascus to embark on a new wave of offensives throughout the country, cutting off vital corridors of aid between militants in several key areas and encircling a growing number of rebel enclaves into a state of crushing siege.

In August 2016, fighters in the Outer Damascus town of Daraya were forced into a surrender agreement with the government after more than 1,000 days under siege. Around 8,000 residents boarded government buses and transferred to opposition-held Idlib province in the northwest.

The event marked the first time that displacement was explicitly used as a strategic military tool by the government, and Damascus would come to fall back on a pattern of besiegement, surrender and evacuation of populations to Idlib time and again in the intervening years.

Similar patterns of bombardment, siege and evacuation have since resulted in displacements to Idlib and other northern areas from East Aleppo, Madaya, Zabadani, East Ghouta, northern Homs, Hama, south Damascus and Daraa.

Q: What will happen to the more than one million internally displaced people in Idlib province if pro-government forces launch a military campaign there?

Idlib is now at the center of Syria’s internal displacement crisis. The strategically crucial northwestern province, which shares a border with Turkey, is the last major opposition stronghold left standing after a series of government victories over the past year drove rebel factions from central and southern territories of the country.

But, crucially, it is also home to an estimated one million displaced Syrians from all corners of Syria.

Turkey has sent mixed signals about its willingness to take in more Syrian refugees fleeing violence, as the nation already hosts around 3.5 million refugees—more than any other country on Earth. Turkish intelligence sources have estimated that another 250,000 people may flee to the border in the event of a drawn-out military campaign by pro-government forces.

Ankara has mulled the idea of using its armed forces to create and reinforce ‘safe-zones’ where fleeing civilians would be held near the border and prevented from entering Turkish territory.

Q: What are the rights and legal status of displaced people in international law? And is the Syrian government meeting its responsibilities under international law?

While internally displaced people (IDPs) are not covered by any specific international convention, their rights to shelter, security and health are protected by human rights law, as well as—in the case of conflict zones like Syria—international humanitarian law.

Key tenets of international humanitarian law explicitly forbid compelling civilians to leave their homes, withholding aid or food from populations and collective punishment such as the destruction of homes and hospitals.

Authorities in Damascus have been accused of widespread atrocities against civilian populations across the country since the beginning of the conflict, and displaced communities have not been spared from flagrant violations of international law.

The combined use of sieges and bombardments, targeting populated areas under opposition control, has been the cornerstone of the Syrian government’s military strategy since at least 2014. These techniques have been used to force rebel groups into negotiated settlements—usually referred to as reconciliation agreements—which have often included the organized displacement of entire civilian communities along with local fighters.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has condemned the use of displacement as a tactic of war, urging that “any evacuation of civilians must be safe, voluntary and in strict accordance with protection standards under international humanitarian and human rights law.”

Rebel groups have also been accused of grave human rights violations against displaced civilians. Most prominently, a suicide car bombing in 2017 targeted civilian convoys from the besieged Shia towns of al-Fuaa and Kufraya as they were being evacuated to government-held territory in Aleppo. The attack resulted in at least 126 deaths.

Q: Which organizations are responding to the needs of displaced people in Syria?

Several Turkish humanitarian organizations have taken a leading role in assisting the displaced near the northern border regions, with the Turkish Red Cross, Red Crescent and Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) all providing aid in varying capacities to vulnerable displaced populations.

UN humanitarian agencies cannot consistently access areas of Syria outside government control, leaving a constellation of NGOs and civil society groups to fill in the gaps elsewhere. The Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS), Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and smaller, local organizations have taken on the daunting task of providing basic services to hundreds of thousands dispersed throughout the country.

As a result of extreme isolation, cut off from flows of international aid and close to the frontlines of the ongoing conflict, many Syrians are residing in a slew of unlivable displacement camps that are often unofficial. Displaced families have told Syria Direct in recent months of threadbare tents, poor hygiene conditions and an abject lack of basic medical supplies to stave off even preventable diseases.

Perhaps the most extreme example is Rukban, a makeshift settlement in the southeastern desert near the Syrian-Jordanian border, where around 50,000 displaced Syrians struggle to survive in desolate isolation. The UN sporadically drops supplies by crane into the site, and many residents have no choice but to live off expensive, smuggled goods. Harsh desert conditions are ripe for spread of diseases, such as hepatitis and diarrhea. Beyond the brutality of daily life, many IDPs have braved Islamic State (IS) bombings and local violence between sparring rebel factions.  

Despite the challenges, displaced Syrians have managed to form some semblance of normal life for themselves, with school and clinic tents now a regular feature of displacement camps across the country.

This report is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of internal displacement in Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.

Barrett Limoges

Barrett Limoges is an investigative journalist who has reported from across the MENA region, his work appearing previously in Al Jazeera, Middle East Eye, PBS Newshour, Al-Monitor, Huffington Post and other publications. He studied journalism at the University of King's College and is currently pursuing a MA in Political Science at the American University of Beirut. Follow Barrett on Twitter: @barrett_limoges.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 and previously reported for The Daily Star in Beirut. Follow Madeline on Twitter: @MEdwardsJO.