Forced displacement in Syria: Challenges and avenues for civil society engagement

An analysis of the drivers and challenges of displacement movements in and from Syria, and the role of local civil society actors to mitigate them.
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With over 5.5 million Syrians living as refugees in neighboring countries, and 6.7 million being internally displaced (including an estimated 2.5 million children), Syria remains the world’s largest displacement crisis. After more than a decade, the country is devastated. Over 13.4 million need humanitarian assistance. Syria is currently experiencing an economic crisis that has resulted in the Syrian pound losing 75% of its value, alongside a 200% price increase in basic food and household items. Additional factors such as the COVID-19 pandemic, economic sanctions, and regional instability have further complicated the humanitarian outlook.

The Syrian conflict is protracted; frontlines have not shifted in the past year, yet smaller battles result in consistent shelling and rocket fire along contact lines, which continue to result in civilian casualties and displacement. A total of 1.8 million internal displacement movements were recorded across Syria in 2020, most of which took place in the Idlib and Aleppo Governorates.

The Syrian civil society has played a huge part in supporting internally displaced people (IDPs), at all levels. Providing
education, health, psycho-social support, protection services, and livelihood provision, these actors have often provided essential services that have been disrupted or discontinued due to the conflict. Since the onset of the conflict, Civil Society Organizations have been increasing in numbers and influence. More than 700 local CSOs operate currently across the different areas of control and with varying domains of work, from humanitarian relief to development as well as human rights and advocacy. It is noteworthy here that the work of Syrian Civil society has also been highly impacted by the progress of the conflict, whether by territorial shifts in control, changing priorities and needs, or other contextual changes including displacement waves.

This research examines the relationship between displacement and civil society in Syria in terms of how civil society actors have been able to influence the main drivers for displacement in and from Syria. It then considers likely scenarios for the Syrian crisis in the next one to three years and concludes by assessing what this means for Syrian civil society actors. The research is based on primary qualitative data and a foresight tool, to further build a scenario of expected displacements in Syria. The conclusions and recommendations are based on insights gathered by civil society actors and thematic experts.

“Displacements cause our centers to move to other places, which changes our work plans, which eventually leads to significant delays in obtaining the expected results.”


Civil society’s work in Syria has been responsive to and driven by displacement waves in various ways. Staff and offices have been physically moved and projects have faced disruption as a result of conflict and displacement.

Yet, Syrian organizations continue to address the urgent needs of displaced people, providing access to health and education, providing psycho-social support, documenting displacements and human rights abuses, and supporting the integration of IDPs into new places. Over the past decade, organizations and activists on the ground have developed many mitigation systems and programs to meet the needs caused by displacements, with some gaps (e.g., education).

Looking at all the data gathered through this research, it seems that in the coming years, civil society will continue its crucial role in mitigating challenges related to displacements. This is because the context in Syria is not expected to improve – all experts interviewed for this study anticipate that the situation is likely to remain close to the status quo in the next two-year period. As part of the status quo, space for civil society is expected to continue to shrink over time as political actors become more entrenched, funding will continue to reduce, and economic sanctions will most likely be maintained. Syrian organizations and staff members take on a great deal of personal risk providing services to their communities; the constant danger is likely to continue for teams on the ground. After coping with the challenges of serving displaced populations, the staff themselves must manage the fact that they themselves are often IDPs.

As a result of the anticipated status quo, the role Syrian civil society organizations have been playing for the past decade in providing services will most likely continue to be needed.

Civil society actors are already filling many gaps in basic services and basic needs for displaced families. The continued trend of qualified staff – particularly doctors, nurses, and teachers – will place an additional burden on organizations
to deliver quality services. The situation will continue to be challenging as displacement could reach 13,88 million in 2022, according to the forecasted scenario developed through the Foresight model. Contrary to the previous years, a large proportion of future displacements is expected to be driven by economic needs. Many experts agree that the next few years to come will mark a new era in the Syrian conflict.

“Our working centers have moved several times; most of our team members are IDPs.”


To civil society actors:

  • Centralize data regarding IDPs, and coordinate efforts with other regional actors, in order to ensure the sustainability of services, continuous access to target groups, and mitigate challenges related to displacements.
  • Map all available support centers and services for IDPs (including most vulnerable groups, especially women)
    available in each region so civil society workers can easily hand into those in need of support across sectors.
  • Focus on supporting the displaced youth so that the generation of Syrians who grew up within the war and in displacement can have productive lives and improved mental health.
  • Focus on social cohesion to ensure IDPs can be integrated into their new areas of residency in the long term.
  • Continue to document human rights violations, even if the conflict situation is not evolving.
  • As economic sanctions are not expected to be lifted in the near future, civil society actors should develop ways to provide more transparency and develop alternative solutions to mitigate donors’ hesitancy.
  • When engaging women, identify the decision-makers in the household that often act as detractors from project participation and ensure they have proper awareness about programming.
  • Develop follow-up mechanisms with internally displaced people to maintain connections with them and follow up on needs.

To donors:

  • Acknowledge that civil society workers are not to be distinguished from the people; they themselves are often displaced and should not be considered solely as intermediaries with communities. This can be partially addressed by providing psycho-social support to civil society actors themselves.
  • Incorporate the resolution of HLP issue as a dimension of sustainable returns and long-term peace when working on the political process (e.g., support, rights for displaced people, government compensation).
  • Invest in more permanent solutions for the HLP rights-related issues where possible, including more investment
    in understanding HLP issues and supporting HLP programming.
  • Extend the duration and flexibility of grants in terms of the project’s scope, location, and budget in order to
    provide more consistent results – which will reduce the burden on overwhelmed civil society workers.
  • Provide contingency funds to civil society organizations, providing them with a margin of response in case of a wave of forced displacements.
  • Support more programs that address the specific needs of women in displacement, including social cohesion and integration support, and ensure the different profiles of women (employment status, ethnic group, socio-economic status) when funding women empowerment projects.
  • Support quantitative research looking into the drivers and challenges of displacement, in the time (before, during, and after displacement occurs).
  • Support a study of the rebuilding process for civil society organisations after a displacement movement,
    looking at elements and events as quantitative variables.

“When IDPs arrive at a safe zone and register their children in local schools, this causes a need for a response from the school, a change in distribution plans, a need to increase the amount of distributing material, or more water and other resources. There is also a need to dedicate more staff to respond to the needs of the displaced.”

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