NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – With daily television images of civilians fleeing shelling with children in their arms, allegations of chemical weapon use and 70,000 deaths, it’s no surprise that Syria tops the global list of countries where people were internally displaced last year.
In 2012, 2.4 million people were newly displaced within Syria, taking the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide to a record-breaking 28.8 million, according a report released on Monday by the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).
“It’s the fastest evolving internal displacement crisis at the moment in the world,” Clare Spurrell, a spokeswoman for the IDMC, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The report says that displacement will continue to accelerate in Syria until the conflict is resolved.
Syria's uprising began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad but escalated into a civil war pitting mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against the government of Assad, whose minority Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
In the first four months of 2013 – which are not covered by the report – it is estimated that an additional 800,000 Syrians have been internally displaced, taking the number of IDPs in the country to 3.8 million.
At the end of 2011, there were just 589,000 IDPs in Syria – less than one-sixth the current figure.
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) has only been able to reach 430,000 of those in need, Spurrell said.
“Syria has really gone beyond the tipping point where humanitarians are going to be able to adequately respond,” she said. “A political resolution to the conflict is the most important first step now.”
INVISIBLE AND UNAIDED
Overall, global displacement increased to 28.8 million in 2012 from 26.4 million the year before. Over 6.5 million were newly displaced in 2012, almost twice that of the previous year.
Many of the world’s IDPs get little or no emergency assistance. They are often trapped in dangerous places with few access routes, making it hard for humanitarian workers to reach them. Warring parties also try to block aid to people they see as part of the enemy population.
In Syria, most IDPs stay with relatives, friends and host communities. Others are camped out in mosques, universities, parks and schools. They are largely invisible and unaided.
“Incoming IDPs, often devoid of money assets or any means of sustaining themselves, are placing an unavoidable strain on already exhausted host communities... [who themselves are] suffering a lack of food, a lack of access to healthcare,” said Spurrell, adding that tensions have been reported between IDPs and their hosts in 20 percent of the Syrian province of Idlib governorate.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent has been unable to reach two-thirds of IDPs, international appeals have not been sufficiently funded and the efforts of civil society to smuggle in medicines and food have been limited by their own lack of resources, the report said.
The few camps that exist are in opposition-controlled areas along the Turkish border.
Aside from Syria, the other three large-scale displacement crises that the world struggled to respond to in 2012 were all in Africa.
In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), one million people fled an upsurge in violence. In November, a new rebel group, the M23, displaced 140,000 people from the city of Goma in a single week.
In Somalia, there are still over one million IDPs, despite the end of the famine and a stronger federal government in Mogadishu.
The final trouble spot is Mali. Close to 230,000 people fled northern Mali to escape an uprising by Tuareg rebels early in 2012 and widespread abuses by militant Islamist groups that took control of vast parts of the country in June.
IDMC says 90 percent of IDPs in the countries it monitors live in situations of protracted displacement, defined by UNHCR as having been displaced for five years or more with bleak prospects for an immediate solution.
“You are seeing second and third generations being born into displacement,” said Spurrell. “It is very easy for internally displaced people to become invisible.”
The report calls on governments to do more to help IDPs.
“Most governments would prefer IDPs to go back to their places of origin, but have done very little to create the right conditions for returns,” it said, pointing to continuing social and ethnic tensions and lack of support in accessing basic documents and services."