Syrian Refugees: A Humanitarian Crisis

Image: BBC

The Syrian civil war has been christened as the major and the worst humanitarian crisis. About half of the Syrian population directly/indirectly, one or the other way has been seriously impacted by the crisis. The common people have been undergoing war crimes and atrocities. The list of crimes and atrocities against the common people is very comprehensive including the violations of human rights. It has been said that more than 1/3 of the Syrian population, have been displaced internally and externally, turning into refugees. The intensity of the crisis can be realized from the fact that out of 18 Million total population of the country, about 5,625,871 happened to be refugees as per the UNHRC Report “Syria Regional Refugee Response”, earlier stood at 6,130,000–6,320,000 refugees based on UN estimate, March 2016.

Syrian War

Syria is a Sunni majority Muslim country but happened to be ruled by the Shiite Alawite minority. Hafez al-Assad had ruled Syria as its President from 1971 to 2000, who was belonged to the Shiite religious minority. Patrick Seale (1990) has argued that President Assad’s rule, “began with an immediate and considerable advantage: the government he displaced was so detested that any alternative came as a relief.” The first step to give this impression, he tried to establish the national unity, lost under the leadership of earlier nationalist rulers like Aflaq and Jadid, from the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party.

A young Syrian boy sits outside his home which has been completely destroyed by a bombing/ Image: CARE UK

In the beginning, President Assad had made a good place from him in the heart of people as he used to visit the villages to hear the local complaints and sort them out on the spot. Also, he made efforts to rehabilitate the people who had been either forced to be undergrounded, jailed or exiled for opposing the rule of Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. Although he did not democratize the country but made some provisions by easing the repressive policies to give some relief to the common people. To give food accessibility to common people, the prices of foodstuffs were reduced to the amount of 15 percent; the police were liberalized and reformed; bilateral relations with Lebanon were improved, and the economy was partly liberalized as well.

The aspirations and hopes of the Syrian people regarding a democratic political liberalized economic and secular social system were dashed to the grounds. The partial liberalized economic system soon turned into a more privatized system to give undue benefits to the nears and dears. Hafez al-Assad had started organizing the political system on the sectarian lines. Hinnebusch (2001) argued that President Hafez had institutionalized the national political system in such a way wherein he could weaken the powers of the state institutions and the incumbent party. Rather, the state-sponsored cult of personality has been put in place and made it ubiquitous.  All the top positions either in politics or security apparatus have been seized by not only by the Alawite minority, rather Assad family usurped the major chunk as well.

Photo dated 12 March 1985 of late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad acknowledging the crowd/ Image: Sputnik

Against this background, the Syrian people have been urging for the democratic set up wherein everybody would have equal rights. Instead of making arrangements/provisions for the same, the security forces had started committing atrocities against the Sunni majority demonstrators and protestors. Although the Syrian people used to feel pride in religious tolerance as earlier used to be practised, now many people from the majority started questioning the political/military powers monopolized by a handful of Alawite families. This ethnic conflict between the minority versus majority resulted in the Syrian Civil War.

Following the death of Hafez, Bashar al-Assad (Son of Hafez), was elected uncontested in the election (2000) and took over as the President of the country. He entered the office by assuring the people regarding adequate reforms in the existing authoritarian political, military and economic administrations. He promised to crack down on the skyrocketed corruption, modernization of the infrastructure and adequate provisions for the democratic setup. But very shortly, he chose the same political path, as earlier charted out by his father. He had kept the political powers concentrated in the one ruling family along with the one-party system, where there are no channels for the political dissent/s. Moreover, civil society activism was curtailed. The media freedom was gagged. The Syrian crisis is given ethnic reasons and was further exacerbated by the regional and global geopolitical dynamics.

Hinnebusch (2001) called the Bashar’s regime as, “the regime’s mixture of statism, rural and sectarian favouritism, corruption and new inequalities,” which led to the Sunni disillusionment along with the growth of the Islamic movement. The Syrian have been demanding the ousting of the President Bashar al-Assad along with the relinquishment of political power by the Ba’ath Party, which has been ruling Syria since 1971. The demonstrations and protests were started on 15 March 2011, by the rebel groups demanding the reform in the existing authoritarian political system.

In order to rein in the protests and demonstrations by the rebels, the Syrian Army was deployed in April 2011. In pursuits of the controlling demonstration and protests, the law and order situation became bad to worse. The war was started between President Bashar al–Assad supported by the external powers like Russia, China  and Iran, along with and Hezbollah (Shi’a Islamist militant group and political party based in Lebanon) on the one hand, whereas on the other hand, rebel groups like Free Syrian Army, Southern Front Forces, Army of Islam, and Kurdish Forces etc.  supported by the Saudi Arabia, US, Turkey, some Gulf countries. The terrorist groups like Al-Nusrah Front (A Syrian Al-Qaeda Branch) and ISIS have also been fighting against the Syrian regime

Hezbollah fighters hold party flags during a parade in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon/ Image: The Times of Israel

The Syrian Civil War began in a full-fledged manner when the Syrian security forces locked in horns with protesters/rebels. The violence ultimately turned millions of Syrians into refugees fleeing political violence. It has been argued by some scholars that President Assad had adopted a hard-line approach towards the demonstrators and protesters. He had instructed the law enforcement agencies to arrest the political dissidents and even go to the extent of firing the live ammunitions into the public places and protesters can be treated as “terrorists.” The demonstrations and protests had resulted in a civil war, out of which about 12 million Syrians people were displaced internally and externally. It became one of the worst humanitarian crises in a recent couple of years.

Humanitarian Crisis

Assad family’s long reign since the 1970s has been characterized by the lack of political freedoms given the nature of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. It led to the expansion of skyrocketed corruption, nepotism, unemployment, limited opportunities for upward mobility along with the exponential growing poverty. These problems of the people had fuelled the public boisterous disgruntlement.

Against the background authoritarianism, totalitarianism, violence of high and aggravated nature on account of the ongoing war, about one-third of the total population, the Syrian people fled from the country and sought refuge in many neighbouring or European countries. The Syrian crisis has remained one of the worst humanitarian crisis in terms of displacement and refugees. In the post-World War-II, it has been reported that Syrian people’s displacement is the largest crisis in the world, registering over 5.6 million refugees and about six million people internally displaced. The countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt have been the most preferred destinations. Only paltry part (only 10%) of the total Syrian refugees were able to make Europe their destination out of the total refugees. As per the report of UNHCR and Government of Turkey (updated till 04 July 2019),  Turkey is the most preferred destination for the refugees by housing 3,614,108; followed by Lebanon -929,624; Jordan -662,010; Iraq -252,983; and Egypt -131,433.

Syrian Refugee camp in Turkey/ Image: AP

The humanitarian aid to Syrian Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and the Syrian refugees, particularly in neighbouring countries is used to be planned and provided largely through and by the UNHCR. The drowned Syrian toddler’s body kept on hitting the Turkish beach, had created the defining and defying moment in the refugee’s crisis history and also invoked the humanitarian reciprocations at the global level. The loss of humanity on account of the Syrian Civil War had invoked the global attention towards the responsibilities of refugees host and the third countries to resettle the refugees. In the direction of sorting out the same crisis, the Regional Resilience and Refugee Plan (3RP), a programme strategy was devised on the multilateral levels. The plan has two components: the refugee component and resilience component. The first component i.e., refugee component emphasized the effective protection by providing to the refugee women, girls, boys and men; the life-saving and immediate assistance in camps and host communities. The resilience component is meant for enhancing the capacities and resources for the affected communities to cope/recover from the crisis along with the progressively build self-reliance.

The UN Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura had claimed in April 2016 that casualties of the Syrian Civil War have been catastrophic. As per the report of Washington Post (August 27, 2014), the Syrian government and the rebels had violated the human rights of the common people. Children are the most sufferer as child labour is almost unescapable. They have to work in hostile circumstances only for the meagre wages to support their helpless families. The children are being employed as soldiers, to serve as fighters and human shields. The children are vulnerable to sexual abuses and exploitation. Given the fear of molestation and sexual exploitation of the young girls, the parents used to opt for child marriages. The Syrian government and security forces have been carrying out atrocities/violence on the people.  Under the cloud of violence, about five lac people have been killed which included estimated 55,000 children.

With the joining of external powers, the Syrian conflict had become more devastating. The infrastructures were collapsed.  The necessities like health are not accessible to 95% of refugee people. On account of the war, the economy has been completely dilapidated and forced 80% of the population leading lives in dire poverty. Drinking water is beyond the reach of 70% of people. The worst sufferer is the children as they had lost the lovely and caring parents, and bearing unspeakable violence and brutality. About half of the children have been out of schools.  Murders, rapes and enforced disappearances are the major problems of the people. Seeing these major challenges being faced by the internally and externally displaced people, it can be labelled as the worst humanitarian crisis of the world. The dead body of the Syrian toddler washing the Turkish beach had shaken the consciousness of the common people. What more can the worst one, when about half of the population have denied access to the food, water, and health services, and the other basic necessities required for leading a simple life. The same had become more cataclysmic when horrifying sexual violence is being imposed on the helpless child and young females.

From the horrendous experiences from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and many others, it can be concluded that killing of the humanity is one of the least concerns for people/regimes hankering after money and power. Whereas on the other, it is an utter failure on part of the international law agencies. How to garner international cooperation to handle this humanitarian crisis would remain a major challenge before humanity at large? 

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Dr Jaspal Kaur and Dr Bawa Singh

Dr Jaspal Kaur (Assistant Professor) has been teaching in the Department of Law, Regional Campus Jalandhar, Guru Nanak Dev University (Amritsar), India || Dr Bawa Singh (Assistant Professor) has been teaching in Department of South and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda (Punjab) INDIA. He could be reached at

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