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How Covid-19 has affected those seeking refuge in war-torn Syria

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


By Rachel Basten



A record total of 82.4 million people were forced to flee their homes in 2020 leaving 1 percent of all mankind across the world in a sense of limbo, forced into refugee camps and shelters.[1] Unfortunately, the pandemic has only exacerbated such humanitarian crises: in a bid to limit the spread of the virus it is estimated that 99 out of the 160 countries that closed their borders did not make exceptions for asylum seekers.[2] The US, for instance, created a provision called Title 42 which enabled authorities to temporarily block asylum-seekers from entering the country on the reasoning of health.[3] As the pandemic took hold on a global scale, internal politics took precedent over dealing with global humanitarian issues.


The latest Global Trends report, released by the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), has revealed Syria to be the country with the largest international displacement situation with the number of refugees peaking at 6.8 million.[4] Conflict in Syria first erupted in March 2011 after the arrest and torture of a group of adolescents for painting revolutionary slogans on a school wall in Deraa, southern Syria. As oppositional forces gained momentum against Mr Assad, the conflict became more sectarian in nature – showing no sign of reaching a consensus or a peace agreement.


As Syria enters its tenth year of conflict, the war does not seem to be slowing down. For instance, in January 2021 it was estimated that 13.4 million people inside Syria were in need of humanitarian assistance.[5] Whilst there are some positive signs of change – President Biden pledged to raise the historically low annual refugee cap from 15,000 to 62,500 – war-ravaged Syria still faces violence, persecution and human rights violations to an extreme level.[6]


A recent UN Syria Commission of Inquiry report, released in February 2021, explicitly stated the scale of the countries’ conflict. Syrians in population centres have suffered artillery and aerial bombardment, attacks using chemical weaponry and on-foot sieges – leading to extreme cases of injury and famine.[7] However, Syria does not retain the infrastructure that is needed to help amend the populations’ basic humanitarian needs, a simple fact that has been worsened by the effects of the pandemic. Commissioner Karen Koning Abuzayd outlined the negative impact of Covid-19: it ‘has wreaked havoc on medical systems in high-income countries with the unforeseen consequence of ‘overwhelming’ medical staff and frontline workers in Syria. Despite such awareness, Abuzayd highlighted the urgency of the situation as ‘Principled and rights-based humanitarian access must be restored without further delay’.[8]


Although it does not seem that the war in Syria will end imminently, with progress in reaching a solution undoubtedly slow, there has been an agreement to write a new constitution. The end goal of this new legal framework will be free and just elections that shall be overseen by the UN.[9] Indeed, UN special envoy Geir Pedersen pledged in January 2021 that ‘we need a more serious and cooperative international diplomacy’ something of which ‘really should be possible…[if] high among our shared priorities’.[10] With the rallying support of the international communities, war-torn Syria will hopefully receive its urgently desired humanitarian aid by the end of 2021, as countries start to rebuild after the pandemic.


 

Image: Marwa Nasser, ‘Syria war: 'This is the price we had to pay for freedom' (BBC News, 2 March 2021) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-56154584> accessed 20 June 2021.

[1] Kristy Siegfried, ‘The Refugee Brief’ (UNHCR, 18 June 2021) <https://www.unhcr.org/refugeebrief/latest-issues/> accessed 19 June 2021. [2] Jamey Keaten and Edith M. Lederer, ‘UN: Millions driven from homes in 2020 despite COVID crisis’ (AP News, 18 June 2021) <https://apnews.com/article/united-nations-europe-africa-migration-government-and-politics-be2988dbd711d62f083dbb69c484b47a#_ga=2.69952600.950723099.1624282944-1434776953.1624282944> accessed 19 June 2021. [3] Molly O’ Toole, ‘Biden promised change at the border’ (Los Angeles Times, 19 March 2021) <https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2021-03-19/a-year-of-title-42-both-trump-and-biden-have-kept-the-border-closed-and-cut-off-asylum-access> accessed 19 June 2021. [4] ‘Global Trends Forced Displacement in 2020’ (UNHCR, 18 June 2021) <https://www.unhcr.org/flagship-reports/globaltrends/#_ftn1> accessed 19 June 2021. [5] ‘Why has the Syrian war lasted 10 years?’ (BBC News, 12 March 2021) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-35806229> accessed 19 June 2021. [6] ‘Joe Biden raises Trump refugee cap after backlash’ (BBC News, 4 May 2021) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-56975402> accessed 18 June 2021. [7] “Military Solutions’ in Syria have led to a decade of death, denial, and destruction’ (UN Human Rights Council, 18 February 2021) <https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/Pages/NewsDetail.aspx?NewsID=26756&LangID=E> accessed 19 June 2021. [8] Ibid. [9] ‘Why has the Syrian war lasted 10 years?’ (n 5). [10] Geir Pedersen, ‘United Nations special envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen briefing to the security council’ (20 January 2021) <https://specialenvoysyria.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/2021-01-20_secco_un_special_envoy_for_syria_mr._geir_o._pedersen_briefing_as_delivered_.pdf> accessed 19 June 2021.

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