Secretary General of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), Charlotte Slente, visited DRC operations in Syria early February where she saw first-hand the living conditions facing Syrians over a decade since the crisis began. Over that time, more than half of the population has been forced to leave their homes including almost seven million people displaced inside Syria and more than six million people having fled the country.
“Nothing can prepare you for the level of devastation that you see in Syria”, said Charlotte Slente. “Although there are areas where, at present, there is no active conflict, the sheer level of destruction combined with economic crisis is resulting in a dire situation for millions of Syrians.”
Record unemployment, increasing prices of everyday items including food, and the COVID-19 pandemic, which continue to batter communities still reeling from the last ten years of conflict, have resulted in over 90 per cent of the population in Syria now living below the poverty line.
“As I met people in Aleppo, Homs, and Rural Damascus, it was clear to me that families are traumatised by what has happened in their country”, said Charlotte Slente noting that cities that previously were home to hundreds of thousands, now resembled ghost towns:
“For those who are internally displaced, there are many barriers to resuming a normal life, whether that be returning home or building a life elsewhere in Syria. With so much damage and destruction to essential public services, early recovery assistance is crucial to help people with access to water, electricity, healthcare, education, and restoring livelihoods. There is no dignity in relying on handouts simply to survive. As humanitarians, we continue to appeal to the international community to deliver a comprehensive humanitarian response that increases equitable access to public services and appeal to all relevant local actors to ensure unimpeded humanitarian access to communities in need. However, while it is imperative for humanitarian assistance to be sustained, it is alone not enough to offset the adverse humanitarian impact of the crisis. Political and state actors should meet their obligation ensuring respect for International Humanitarian Law and a peaceful political solution to the crisis once and for all.”
The devastating humanitarian situation in the country and the inability of independent actors from UN and the humanitarian sector to monitor security for those returning voluntarily also underlines how difficult it would be to imagine large scale returns of millions of refugees in the foreseeable future.
“Our position as DRC on refugee returns remains clear and in line with UNHCR recommendations; that Syria is not yet ready for large scale, facilitated refugee return and any return must be fully informed and voluntary. Refugee hosting states, including Denmark, should continue to ensure the legal right to remain in the country where they reside. Furthermore, unimpeded humanitarian access to those returning voluntarily must be ensured. This was also the message I conveyed to the Syrian authorities.”
DRC has worked in Syria since 2008, initially supporting people fleeing the conflict in Iraq. Since the onset of the crisis in Syria, DRC has had programmes across emergency response and shelter to economic recovery, protection, water and sanitation, rehabilitation of schools and houses and mine risk education. DRC supports internally displaced persons, returnees and host community members in large parts of the country.