Syria’s 6.7 million invisible refugees: “I left the home I had lived in for 32 years”

The conflict in Syria has now lasted longer than the Second World War. 

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With her 10-month-old twins Zain and Haneen, Ferha arrived in northern Syria exhausted, depressed and impoverished. Her children were suffering from varying degrees of malnutrition, her husband’s whereabouts unknown. Most of her relatives had been killed in airstrikes.

“She was scared, exhausted, impoverished and ill,” says Dr Amal, a health centre nutrition manager who treated the family. “She had lost nearly all her family, and her husband was missing. The children and the woman’s situations were really bad. Psychologically, they were so tired.”

The story sounds familiar: one of thousands of refugees making an exhausting, dangerous journey with uncertainty over their final destination.

Except that Zain, Haneen and Ferha were not refugees on a perilous journey to Europe. Their journey was within Syria. Along with tens of thousands of others, they had fled from Eastern Ghouta near Damascus to northern Idlib province this spring, after the Syrian government launched a military campaign to reclaim the suburb. The victory represented a significant win for the Assad regime, which now controls all of the country’s major cities.

“It is the hardest thing to say, how I felt when I left the home that I had lived in for 32 years, with my life’s details between its walls,” Bayan Rehan, who fled the town of Douma in Eastern Ghouta just before the suspected chemical attack in April, tells the New Statesman.

“The regime bombed part of my house, and when I was looking for somewhere new to rent it reminded me of my old home. I started to cry like a child.”

Having fled Douma on her own, only later reuniting with friends and family, Bayan now works in a women’s empowerment centre in Idlib. Her flight, like that of Ferha and her children, took place as a result of so-called reconciliation agreements between opposition groups and the Assad government.

Since the exodus from Eastern Ghouta, similar arrangements have also prompted displacements from Yarmouk, a camp south of Damascus home to Palestinian refugees, as well as areas near the Lebanese border.

British and European authorities have been distracted by Syrian refugees arriving on their shores, and concerned with integrating those unable to return home. Around half of Syria’s pre-war population, around 13 million people, is now displaced, but the reality is more than half of them – some 6.7 million individuals – have been forced to move within their own country’s borders.

These people face ongoing threats of airstrikes, rule by Salafi extremists, poverty, and becoming entrenched in cycles of aid dependency. They also face the prospect of never being able to return home to areas once again under Assad’s control, fearful of reprisals by loyalist forces. They also risk losing their homes and businesses, as a result of new property legislation from Damascus.

Some 920,000 people were displaced within Syria in the first four months of 2018 – the highest figure since the beginning of the conflict. Some of the country’s poorest and most damaged areas carry the burden of the displaced – not Europe. According to the Pew Research Center, there are 690,000 Syrians resettled in Germany, Sweden and Norway combined. The UK has taken around 10,000 Syrian refugees, and plans to welcome the same number again by 2020.

Idlib, on the other hand, where Ferha and Bayan fled, is home to over one million internally displaced people (IDPs), who make up more than half of its two million-strong population. The region, which is a little smaller than the British county of Devon, houses the highest number of internally displaced people of anywhere in Syria: the displaced are crammed into relatives’ homes, squalid camps and other makeshift accommodation.

“As a region, Idlib has large expanses of countryside and people are in city centres and camps,” says Wissam Khadour, a media activist in the province. “But there are still difficulties and reduction of humanitarian organisations because of the number of people who have come to Idlib.”

Some new arrivals say they found a warm welcome, although the UN has documented tensions in Idlib between displaced people and residents. “It is perceived that the additional numbers of IDPs are likely to decrease the quality of life and availability of existing services hitherto enjoyed by host communities, thus increasing tensions and negative perceptions towards newly arrived IDPs”, according to a May situation report.

Multiple factors have led to high levels of internal displacement in Syria, with many moving several times.

Fleeing abroad has become almost impossible, as neighbouring countries such as Lebanon and Turkey have closed their borders and halted registration of new refugees. This month, Turkey completed the construction of a 764km wall along its border with Syria to keep people out. 

Some Syrians fled Russian and Syrian army airstrikes, while others escaped extremist groups such as Isis, which is still present in the eastern desert near the Iraqi border. Others ran from both. The international coalition’s airstrikes, which have caused widespread destruction in cities such as Raqqa in operations to oust the terror group, also caused people to seek safety elsewhere within Syria. Many have chosen displacement from Assad government-controlled areas to opposition-controlled ones, for fear of detention or poor treatment by the regime.

Monitors and aid agencies have noted the oversight around Syria’s IDPs, and warn that allowing civilians to become trapped in internal displacement cycles makes them increasingly vulnerable. Overcrowding, a lack of water, and difficulties accessing food and money are the main problems they face, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, part of the Norwegian Refugee Council. 

“Syria’s brutal war and the flight of refugees may have made headlines in 2017, but the sharp increase in internally displaced was inexcusably overlooked,” says Jan Egeland, NRC’s Secretary General. “The conflict has lasted two years longer than the Second World War. It has become a marathon of pain.”

It is not as if the internally displaced are entirely safe after their flight, though, and many are jumping from the cauldron into the fire.

Idlib is mostly controlled by a Salafi jihadi group called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, whose hardline ideology is foreign to many Syrians. Rivalry with other rebel groups in the area has led to a recent campaign of targeted assassinations and bombings, which killed at least 24 civilians in May alone.

And while a so-called de-escalation zone patrolled by Turkey, Iran and Russia is supposed to prevent aerial attacks, airstrikes persist. A suspected Russian or Syrian raid on the village of Zardana at the beginning of June left at least 44 people dead.

Organisations helping internally displaced persons are hugely underfunded; by the end of May, the UN refugee agency had received little over ten per cent of its annual needs for the displaced within Syria, and was forced to put out a plea for $64m.

Yet Western governments appear aware that Syrian communities are carrying the largest burden when it comes to displaced people. The UK’s Department for International Development has allocated £866m since 2012 for aid within Syria and in cross-border humanitarian deliveries, in what it says is an attempt to “strengthen the moderate opposition’s capacity to provide governance and basic services and thereby provide an alternative to extremist groups such as ISIL and to the Assad regime.”

While they are geographically closer than Syrians who fled beyond their borders, internally displaced people face myriad challenges in returning home, too. Many will likely not do so for a long time to come.

“Return is impossible with Assad remaining in power,” says Bayan. “It was impossible to stay in a region under the control of a criminal regime that has killed, besieged, and starved Syrian people. I am among those who revolted against the regime and I am sure that they would arrest me.”

After the international coalition’s assault on Isis in Raqqamore than 130,000 displaced civilians have returned home, although the UN says conditions in the city are unsafe.

The activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently has documented discovery of mass graves, bridges that it says were destroyed by the international coalition during raids on Raqqa, as well as recent deaths from leftover Isis landmines.

New property legislation introduced by the government in Damascus is another threat. Law 10, unveiled in April, requires citizens to prove property ownership or face their homes and businesses being reclaimed for potential demolition and redevelopment. It forms a “major obstacle” for returns, according to Human Rights Watch.

“By empowering local authorities to effectively confiscate property and redistribute as shares, it heightens the risk for the population to lose their homes and property,” Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch, tells the New Statesman. “The majority of displaced persons will not return if they do not have a property or home to return to”.

For now, Syria’s IDPs wait. Some cannot face reminders of their old homes, knowing they may never be able to return to them.

“I now do not look at pictures of my city, and I do not follow the news there, because the city has been occupied,” says Bayan. “The regime has abused everything in it. If I accidentally see a photo of Douma on social media, I cry and feel ill in my soul.”

Lizzie Porter is a freelance Middle East news and features journalist based in Beirut.