Former Syrian refugee, Joelle Sanounou
Location icon Syria

Why Syrians face their worst year yet

How the pandemic has made life even more difficult for refugees

Joelle Sanounou was 12 when fighting erupted in Syria. With her parents and older sister, she fled across the border into Lebanon, making her one of the 6.7 million people who’ve left their country in the past 10 years. “All of my relatives scattered all over the world, which was hard because we were all so close,” says the 23-year-old student, who now lives in Sydney. “We never went back.”

Almost 10 years since the start of the conflict, Syria remains the world’s biggest refugee crisis. Over 5.5 million refugees live in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, and a further 6 million Syrians have been internally displaced.

Most Syrian refugees – around 80 per cent – live in urban areas, but living outside refugee camps doesn’t necessarily mean success or stability. The COVID-19 pandemic caused many refugees and host communities to lose their livelihoods. With savings exhausted, poverty levels skyrocketed and now many people are struggling to put food on the table or access critical social services. A recent report by UNHCR and the World Bank found one million more Syrian refugees have been pushed into poverty due to COVID-19.

Lebanon Syrian Refugees Flee Yabrud Syria And Cross The Border Into Arsal In Lebanon
Syrian refugees flee the besieged city of Yabrud, Syria to cross the border to Lebanon. © UNHCR / Andrew McConnell
Syria Kids Catch Up On Classes Missed During The War In Aleppo
Millions of Syrians dropped out of school due to the war, and often struggle to catch up. © UNHCR/Antwan Chnkdji

“Frankly, the situation for many refugees is worse than it has ever been,” says Ayman Gharaibeh, UNHCR Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.



What caused violence to break out? The Syrian refugee crisis is the result of a violent government crackdown on public demonstrations in support of a group of teenagers, who were arrested for anti-government graffiti in the southern town of Daraa. The arrests sparked public demonstrations throughout Syria, starting on March 15, 2011, which were violently suppressed by government security forces. Conflict quickly escalated and the country descended into civil war. Today, an estimated 11.1 million people inside Syria still need humanitarian assistance.

What’s life like for refugees in neighbouring countries? Host countries have been incredibly generous in supporting Syrian refugees, but life can be difficult.

Joelle’s parents struggled to find work in Lebanon, so she and her sister worked illegally as waitresses to support the family. “When government inspectors came, I remember hiding in the kitchen,” she says. “We were always scared, and we never felt like this was home.”

The current situation in Lebanon is particularly severe, due to the impact of the explosions in Beirut last year, and the pandemic’s effect on the economy. Nine out of 10 Syrian refugees – 89 per cent – now live in extreme poverty, compared to 55 per cent in 2019.

UNHCR has stepped up its cash assistance program throughout the region, delivering more than $33 million in emergency funds to approximately 51,000 refugee families since May.

How have women and children been affected by the crisis? The conflict has affected the lives of an entire generation of Syrian children. Even before the pandemic, over one-third of Syrian children didn’t have access to education, and the situation has worsened since then.

At the end of last year, more than 1.2 million Syrian refugee girls and boys aged five to 17 were enrolled in formal education, a drop of 106,000 since the previous year. When refugee families are struggling, they often have to make the difficult decision to pull their children out of school and send them to work. Cash assistance has a positive impact on children – with research showing that it decreases child labour and increases schooling.

In Lebanon, Joelle was able to attend school but her family’s precarious situation meant she had to work whenever she could. University was out of reach. “Yet even though I missed out on childhood in some ways, and I wish I hadn’t had all that responsibility as a child, in a way it made me stronger,” she says. “I feel proud of myself. I know that whatever life throws at me, I can cope.”


Related Stories

View all stories
Syrian Refugee Hero
Location icon

Caught in the Crossfire

As bombs fell around her home in Syria, Yemen ran to the kitchen in terror searching for her mother, Dayane.

Two Syrian girls arrive at a newly established camp in Maaret Misrin in Idlib province
Location icon

Syrian conflict forces parents to make unimaginable decisions

Almost 900,000 people flee conflict upsurge

Former Syrian refugee, Joelle Sanounou
Location icon

Why Syrians face their worst year yet

How the pandemic has made life even more difficult for refugees

Our fundraising commitment

The majority of funds raised by Australia for UNHCR are directed to UNHCR’s emergency operations, providing the ready funds and resources to respond quickly and effectively in situations of crisis and disaster.

Humanitarian programs