A Decade of Conflict: Protection Issues for Displaced Persons in Northern Syria

The decade of armed conflict in Syria resulted in some 6.7 million internally displaced persons and at least another 5.0 million Syrians who have sought shelter in other countries as refugees.

Global Communities began providing humanitarian assistance in Syria in 2014 and cross-border operations are now based in Gaziantep, Turkey for northwest Syria and Iraq for northeast Syria. Our approach goes beyond handing out goods. We engage with communities and Syrian organizations in the region to help Syrians fleeing their homes to cope with the enormous demographic shifts that have taken place, adapt to their new lives and livelihoods, and build resilience. We provide protection to the most vulnerable in this crisis wherever they shelter for now.

The following is a commentary on one of the most difficult challenges in humanitarian assistance in Syria: providing protection services during the COVID-19 pandemic when in-person contact was curtailed to prevent the spread of disease.

Authors of this piece include the Global Communities (known as CHF International in northeast Syria) protection staff in Syria and Emily Galloway, protection adviser at Global Communities in Washington, D.C. This commentary was published March 2, 2021 as part of The Path Forward, a Center for Strategic and International Studies Humanitarian Agenda series of reflections from humanitarian organizations on the challenges in Syria.

Protection in Syria during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Repeated displacements, a lack of safe options for return, overcrowded and unsafe settlements, and a lack of protective institutions represent some of the concerns that continue to make it difficult for many in Syria to find safety. While more than one-third of internally displaced families have been displaced more than three times, displacement has slowed because there is simply nowhere to go. Millions displaced in opposition-controlled northwest Syria are trapped in a shrinking area between the Turkish border, Syrian government forces, and various nonstate actors. Movement across northern Syria is heavily restricted, limiting access to essential services. In the northeast, the Self-Administration of North and East Syria has made significant efforts to improve protection by passing legislation and supporting institutions that provide direct support for women and children though the protection issues outnumber the resources to respond.

Protection for the most vulnerable civilians under these conditions is nearly impossible. Many people have lost documentation—such as birth, family, and marriage records—through multiple displacements. The lack of documentation is a significant barrier to housing, property rights, and access to humanitarian assistance and puts people at risk of abuse or exploitation. Millions live in areas contaminated with explosive hazards, which present an immediate physical risk and limit access to services for those living there and restrict the safe return of others. Many children growing up in the Syrian crisis have always known conflict and suffer from a lack of education and uncertainty about their future. Children face increasing risks of mental health concerns, physical abuse, violence, and child labor, including recruitment to armed groups. The number of children out of school doubled during the Covid-19 pandemic—an estimated two-thirds of children now lack access to education. The conflict continues to add new dynamics to the existing threats to women and girls, such as increased intimate partner violence and reports of sexual exploitation. The risk of gender-based violence for women and girls, while previously a major issue, has been exacerbated during the pandemic. Communities hosting IDPs are also in need of humanitarian assistance, and the lack of safe return options for IDPs raises the risk of tensions between the two communities over access to humanitarian assistance and services.

Policy Context

Despite calls for donors to prioritize protection, there continues to be a chronic shortage of protection funding. This is true for direct protection activities as well as safe programming efforts to ensure communities are protected in other programs. Protection services such as safe spaces and case management are often deferred at the beginning of a crisis and are considered less pressing than other lifesaving aid. However, this removes support for those facing harm at a crucial time, risks creating new protection concerns for others, and removes the safety net of referrals to link the most vulnerable to necessary services such as food and shelter, a critical function of protection. In terms of safe programming, other sectors do not always consider protection principles—Do No Harm, meaningful access and non-discrimination, participation, and accountability—in the design and implementation of humanitarian programs, which leads to protection risks and reduced effectiveness overall.

Increasing government restrictions and vetting requirements for implementing partners has put excessive burdens on local organizations, especially women’s organizations, which tend to be small, grassroots efforts that may not have the capacity or resources to navigate these requirements. Strict banking restrictions for transferring funds into Syria have made getting resources efficiently and safely into the country a significant challenge for humanitarian actors. These challenges harm the most vulnerable in Syria by limiting the participation of actors best placed to understand and respond to the protection needs of their communities in the short term and hampering efforts to get resources to those most in need at critical times. In the longer term, this continued reliance on international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also hinders a change toward a more sustainable and locally led approach.

Recommendations

While most humanitarian funding is understandably short term, protection requires multiyear strategic funding. Protection work entails substantial staff time and experience to cope with complex and unique cases, as opposed to other sectors that are heavily focused on large-scale, material distribution (e.g., food). Funding for protection also needs to be flexible and regarded as lifesaving so that actors can respond immediately to new crises and prevent further harm. One solution is to increase the use of cash for protection to allow individuals and families the dignity to participate in deciding what their most pressing needs are.

It is also important to increase funding for local NGOs—especially women-led and -focused NGOs—to increase local capacity to respond to threats and address some of the root causes of protection concerns. Localizing protection services and focusing on community-based protection—such as training non-protection staff (e.g., healthcare workers) to be able to safely support and refer survivors who disclose abuse to them—can help build protective structures within the community and be more sustainable. Policy changes and donor support are needed, both to earmark more funding for NGO and grassroots activities and to revise restrictive banking measures and vetting requirements that hamper efforts to localize.

Inclusion of protection principles within other sectors is in line with the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) principle of the Centrality of Protection, which declares that protection of civilians and the risk of abuse, exploitation, and violence must be core to all humanitarian work. While there have been efforts to increase protection across sectors, there is a need for clear guidance on inclusion of diverse groups—people with disabilities, older persons, minority groups, women and girls, and youth. Standardized data collection and analysis requirements, as well as funding for safe-programming activities that do not simply “check the box,” require commitments and follow-up by government and international NGO policymakers. Humanitarian organizations have a responsibility to “understand and seek to prevent, mitigate or end actual and potential risks” in their programs. To do so, policymakers should put funding, strategy, and policies in place that help humanitarian actors benefit the communities in Syria to which they are ultimately accountable.

Authors of this piece include the Global Communities (known as CHF International in northeast Syria) protection staff in Syria and Emily Galloway, protection adviser at Global Communities in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).