Refugee Council of Australia
Black and white photo of Syrian children

Key facts on the conflict in Syria and Iraq

Photo: UNHCR/Shawn Baldwin


The conflict in Syria and Iraq has displaced millions of people in the past few years. Learn more about the conflict here, including Australia’s response. You can also find links to statistics and other key resources on the conflict.

The Refugee Council of Australia was proud to host the premiere of Watan, a beautiful film exploring the two largest refugee camps in Jordan, during Refugee Week 2018. We encourage you to book a film screening for your local group and read more about the film here.

What is happening in Syria ?

The Syrian civil war began in March 2011 amidst the Arab Spring, when a wave of democratic protests spread throughout the Middle East. Protests began after the arrest, torture and killing of two teenage boys who had written anti-government graffiti.

Some governments in the Middle East responded to protests with compromise and democratic reforms. The Syrian government under Bashir Al-Assad responded by killing hundreds of protesters and jailing many more.

The war has now gone for over seven years and become much more complex. There has been no improvement in the dire human rights situation in Syria. Syria is now a place where rebel groups, terrorist organisations such as Daesh, and international forces all struggle for power.

There are now 6.6 million people internally displaced people in Syria. By the end of 2017, nearly 3 million people were living in besieged or hard-to-reach areas. This included almost 400,000 besieged by the regime in Eastern Ghouta, where the UN reported almost 12% of children under the age of 5 were suffering from acute malnutrition. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has estimated that 511,00 people have been killed since July 2011.  The situation has been made worse by environmental change, and conflict over food and water supplies.

The Assad regime has used sieges, and blocked humanitarian aid and medical evacuations to force opposition fighters to surrender. Many civilian areas have been subjected to aerial bombing and artillery bombardment, mainly by pro-regime forces, resulting in heavy casualties. Almost 30% of girls are out of school, and one in three schools have been destroyed. Chemical weapon attacks have been employed by the regime, and by Daesh.

Kurdish people in northern Syria have experienced extreme hardship as an ethnic minority campaigning for independence from Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Kurdish civilians have faced persecution by the al-Nusra Front and ISIL as well as the Turkish government.

The international coalition led by the United States supports various rebel groups and conducts air strikes. The Russian government has remained loyal to its historical ally Syria and the government of Bashir al-Assad. The result is that war is prolonged by military aid from world superpowers while Syrians remain desperate for aid. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), less than half of those internally displaced in Syria have gotten basic relief.

On April 2, 2018, the Syrian government passed Law No. 10 of 2018. This law allows for the creation of redevelopment zones across Syria that will be designed for reconstruction. It is important to note that the law does not contain a criteria for which areas can be seized for redevelopment, or a timeline. Redevelopment zones are to be designated by a decree. Within a week after  a decree has been issued, local authorities are to request a list of property owners from the area’s public real estate authorities. This will create obstacles to return. Displaced residents will be more vulnerable under Law No. 10 2018. Many will not be able to return to their properties in order to make a claim. Furthermore, 70% of refugees lack the basic identification records that are required to make a basic property claim. Human Rights Watch stated that as of July 2017, a third of housing had been destroyed. The law does not provide compensation for people whose property has been destroyed.

What is happening in Iraq?

In Iraq, sectarian violence has continued since the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003. This conflict has become worse since US forces left Iraq in December 2011, with the number of civilians dying continuing to rise. In 2014 there was a surge in radical Islamist movements such as ISIL which soon spread throughout Syria.

The Kurdistan region of Iraq is one of the main destinations for refugees fleeing from Syria. The majority of refugees who moved to the area are from the northeastern parts of Syria. As of the beginning of 2016, the number of Syrian refugees in the region exceeded 241,000. In addition, there are a number of unregistered refugees with the UNHCR, and therefore  are unrecorded refugees. According to unofficial statistics, this number exceeded 300,000 at the end of 2016. The majority of these refugees are Kurds who moved from the al-Jazira region, as well as from Afrin and Kobani.

Recently the Iraqi government, with help from the US, successfully recaptured various major cities. Daesh have extended their area of control dangerously close to Iraq’s three major oil refineries in Irbill, Baiji and Baghdad, and destroyed some of Iraq’s most popular tourist attractions. This continues to have a devastating impact on the Iraqi economy, which is strained after more than a decade of conflict. The government remains in turmoil and the people of Iraq continue to struggle to live.

Statistics on Syria

How many refugees are there in Syria (and other key figures)?
What are the needs? What is being provided? How much funding is still needed?
How many people have been killed? How many are detained?

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