The Humanitarian Crisis in the Middle East


Compiled by:
Lillian Volat (cewas middle east), Sarah Achermann (seecon international gmbh), Emmanouil Gitsis (cewas), Luisa Muenter (cewas)

Executive Summary

The Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region is the part of the world currently most affected by human displacement. As a consequence of recent instabilities in the region (such as the insurgency of the “Islamic State of Iraq and Levant” or the Syrian Civil War), the situation has escalated into the highest level of humanitarian emergency as rated by the United Nations. In the Syrian conflict alone, an estimated 400,000 people were killed and another 11.8 million Syrians forcefully displaced, 7 million of which within the country and 4.8 million internationally. The influx of refugees has impacted tremendously on the demographic, socio-economic and security situation in the host communities, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon, where the per-capita refugee population is three to six time higher than in any other country in the world.


The Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA) region describes a loosely defined, transcontinental region that stretches around the Mediterranean Sea from Morocco to Iran. While there is no common definition of the region, the World Bank draws the boundaries around the following states and territories: Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Israel, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, West Bank and Gaza and Yemen (WORLD BANK 2016).

The MENA region is the part of the world most affected by the human displacement as of 2014. Recent instabilities have caused the region’s largest crisis of forced migration since the First Arab-Israeli War in 1948. Between 2008 and 2013, the 2011 uprisings and violence in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and the Palestinian territories have caused the region’s number of refugees and Internally Displaced People (IDPs) to double (LICHTENHELD 2015). The Syrian civil war and the insurgency of the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and Levant) group, which began in June 2014, are ongoing and the duration and magnitude of this crisis are still uncertain. As a consequence, the situation in the MENA region has escalated into the highest level of humanitarian emergency as rated by the United Nations (FDFA 2015).


Map showing of migration inflows and outflows in the middle east up until June 2015 based on media citations. Source: GDELT AND BBVA (2015). 

According to the United Nations and Arab League Envoy to Syria (April 2016), approximately 400,000 have been killed as a result of the Syrian conflict (AL JAZEERA 2016) and the conflict continues to cause displacement. The vast majority of the displaced (an estimated 7 million Syrians) seeked protection within their own country as socalled Internally Displaced People (IDPs), whereas a further 4.8 million were forced to flee as refugees into the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, as well as further afield in Europe (UNHCR 2016a, UNICEF 2016).

The host communities in the Middle East are struggling to meet the needs of the displaced populations, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon, where the per-capita refugee populations are three to six times higher than in any other country in the world (FRIEDLAND 2015). These populations place enormous strain on the existing local resources of the host countries.

Map showing Syrian Refugees in Neighbouring countries as well as number seeking asylum in Europe (status on October 24, 2016) Source: UNHCR (2016b)

Water and sanitation are particularly affected by the crisis given the Middle East is one of the most water-scarce regions in the world. In addition, the per-capita availability of water resources is expected to halve by 2050, whereas the region’s population (currently estimated around 300 million) is expected to grow to 500 million in 2025 (WORLD BANK 2010). According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), even without the devastating effects of climate change and the ongoing conflicts, the Middle East would soon be struggling to meet basic needs of water and sanitation (ICRC 2015).

In Aleppo, where the Syrian conflict has been particularly brutal, water is even used as a weapon of war: In September 2016, 1.95 million people in Aleppo experienced interruptions in the water supply following a number of attacks on pumping stations by the government and opposing forces (UNICEF 2016).

Children in Eastern Aleppo returning from School passing rubble of nearby houses. Source: ZAYAT (2016).

Lebanon as Recipient of Displaced Syrian Communities

Lebanon and Syria share strong historic ties and major population centres of the respective countries lie at close proximity to each other. As a consequence, an estimated 1,017,433 registered refugees from Syria have fled to Lebanon since the beginning of the Syrian conflict (UNEP, OCHA & UNHCR 2016, RELIEFWEB 2013).

Syrian refugees account for 20% of the total population of Lebanon, impacting tremendously on the demographic, socio-economic and security situation in the country in terms of access to basic services and public infrastructure, as well as social cohesion within the communities already affected by sectarian divisions (OCHA & REACH 2014). The refugees together produce about 325,000 tonnes of solid waste per year, which accounts for almost 16% of the solid waste generated by Lebanese citizens prior to the crisis. The costs for waste management and disposal generated by the refugees was estimated at around 24 Million US$ in 2014 (MOE, EU & UNDP 2014). As a consequence of the refugee influx, domestic water demand has increased from 43 to 70 million m3 by the end of 2014 (MOE, EU & UNDP 2014).

According to the 2014 Syria Regional Response Plan (RRP6), most refugees (86%) live in the same communities as the most vulnerable Lebanese populations (UNHCR & RRP6 2014). Bekaa and North Governorate, which host the largest numbers of Lebanese poor, have received the majority of Syrian refugees (OCHA & REACH 2014). The impact of the influx of refugees was less severe in Chouf, Tyre, and the suburbs of Beirut (OCHA & REACH 2014).

Challenges for humanitarian response in Lebanon include the lack of a shared vision among local and international organisations and authorities, unequal service distribution to refugees, the informal mandate of UNHCR, competition for resources between the displaced and the host communities, political-sectarian tensions due to a legacy of marginalisation of groups in Lebanon as well as the high level of bureaucracy, which impedes effective collaboration with local authorities (IIED 2016, MUZNA & ALTABBABA 2016).

Jordan as Recipient of Displaced Syrian Communities

As of September 2016, 655,365 Syrian refugees were officially registered in Jordan, with about 78% of them staying outside of camps in urban areas, abandoned rural properties or informal settlements (UNHCR 2016b). The most urgent needs of the urban, rural and pari-urban refugees include housing subsidies and access to goods. Health care needs are also growing, causing ballooning healthcare costs. The intensified competition for scarce resources, as well as the increasingly compromised education and health services, have also caused the needs of vulnerable Jordanians to grow (CARE 2016).

Sar’a Ramtha and Naseeb, Jaber are the two official border crossings to Syria. While the western border and its unofficial crossings are heavily guarded and militarised, the eastern border is secured by patrols (RELIEFWEB 2013). Jordan’s main refugee camps include the Za’atari refugee camp (approximately 78,000 refugees), the Azraq camp (approximately 27,000 refugees), King Abdullah Park Refugee Camp (approximately 670 refugees) and Cyber City Refugee Camp (310 refugees) (REACH INITIATIVE 2015; UNHCR 2015). UNICEF Jordan provides almost 4 million litres of water per day to the population of the four camps. Most of the water is transported by water tankers, causing a number of concerns over water quality, inequitable access and high costs in the Za’atari camp. For this reason, UNICEF Jordan has started the construction of a water network in May 2015 (UNICEF JORDAN 2015).

Access to a sanitary environment is ensured by means of collection and removal: over 2 million litres of wastewater and about 750 m3 of solid waste is removed from the camps every day. Due to concerns over drinking water contamination, up until December 2014 over 2000 m3 needed to be transported 45 km away. Today, most of the wastewater is processed in the Za’atari Wastewater Treatment Plant that was completed early 2015. Another plant is currently under construction in the Azraq camp (UNICEF JORDAN 2015).

Iraqi Kurdistan as Recipient of Displaced Syrian Communities

The crises in Syria and Iraq have together displaced over 15 million people. In 2016, UNHCR registered 246,455 Syrians in Iraq, 41% of which are under 18 years old. The overwhelming majority (about 97% of the Syrian refugees in Iraq) live in Iraqi Kurdistan, where 41.7% live in a total of nine camps and 58.3% with host communities (UNHCR 2016a).

Iraq and Syria share three official and numerous unofficial border crossings that are frequently closed due to the perilous security situation in both countries (RELIEFWEB 2013).

Since the host communities in Iraqi Kurdistan are generally socioeconomically dominant, their livelihoods have not yet been severely disrupted by the conflict. However, low-skilled workers and small business owners increasingly struggle to meet their own needs, as their segments of the labour market become more and more exposed to competition from displaced groups (UNDP & REACH INITIATIVE 2015). The continuous influx of Syrian refugees to Iraqi Kurdistan has strained the WASH facilities and water provision by the humanitarian actors. Another concern is the amount of refugees that suffered from diarrhoea during their stay at the camps (36% of children under the age of five and 29% of adults) (REACH INITIATIVE 2013).

References Library

ALJAZEERA (2016): Syria death toll: UN envoy estimates 400,000 killed. Doha: Aljazeera. URL [Accessed: 01.11.2016].

CARE (2016): Syria Regional Fact Sheet. March 2016. London: Care International UK. URL [Accessed: 02.02.2017].

CENTER FOR MIDDLE EASTERN STUDIES (2016): Maps of the Middle East. Chicago: University of Chicago. URL [Accessed: 01.11.2016].

FDFA (2015): Swiss Cooperation Strategy Middle East 2015-2018. Bern: Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. URL [Accessed: 14.11.2016].

FRIEDLAND, E. (2015): Who’s Who in the Syrian Civil War. Washington D.C.: The Clarion Project. URL [Accessed: 08.08.2016].

ICRC (2015): How War In The Middle East Is Bringing The Region’s Water Supplies To Breaking Point. Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross. URL [Accessed: 31.08.2016].

IIED (2016): Responding to the Syrien Crisis in Lebanon. Collaboration between aid agencies and local government structures. London: International Institute for Environment and Development. . URL [Accessed: 02.11.2016].

LICHTENHELD, A. (2015): The identity politics of displacement in the Middle East. Washington D.C.: The Washington Post. URL [Accessed: 01.11.2016].

MOE; EU; UNDP (2014): Lebanon Environmental Assessment of the Syrian Conflict & Priority Interventions. Beirut: Ministry of Environment. URL [Accessed: 09.08.2016].

MUZNA, A.; ALTABBABA, M. (2016): Local and Regional Entanglements. The Social Stability Context in Sahel Akkar. Conflict Analysis Report. . The Social Stability Context in Sahel Akkar. Conflict Analysis Report. New York: United Nations Development Programme. URL [Accessed: 02.11.2016].

OCHA; REACH (2014): Informing Targeted Host Community Programming in Lebanon. Geneva: Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Relief for Energy Assistance through Community Help. URL [Accessed: 09.08.2016].

REACH INITIATIVE (2015): Jordan. Genva: Reach Initiative. URL [Accessed: 21.09.2016].

REACH INITIATIVE (2013): Syrian Refugee influx into Northern Iraq. WASH Baseline influx into Northern Iraq. Geneva: Reach Initiative. URL [Accessed: 10.08.2016].

RELIEFWEB (2013): Syrian Border Crossings. Geneva: Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affaires. URL [Accessed: 21.09.2016].

UNDP; REACH INITIATIVE (2015): Multi-Sector Needs Assessment of Hosting Communities Across the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Geneva: United Nations Environment Programme. URL [Accessed: 10.08.2016].

UNEP; OCHA; UNHCR (2016): Environmental Consequences of the Syria Crisis. Geneva: Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the United Nations Environment Programme. URL [Accessed: 02.09.2016].

UNHCR (2016): Syrian Refugees – Iraq. Humanitarian Inter-Agency Interventions. Information Kit No. 15. Geneva: United Nations High Commission for Refugees. URL [Accessed: 10.08.2016].

UNHCR (2016): Syrian Regional Refugee Response. Inter-agency Information Sharing Portal. Genevas: United Nations High Commissioner of Refugee. URL [Accessed: 01.11.2016].

UNHCR (2015): Jordan. Factsheet Field Office – Irbid. UNHCR Factsheet. Geneva: : United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees. URL [Accessed: 14.11.2016].

UNHCR (2014): 2014 Syria Regional Response Plan. Geneva: United Nations High Commission for Refugees. URL [Accessed: 21.09.2016].

UNICEF (2016): Syrian Crisis. September 2016. Humanitarian Results. Geneva: UNICEF. URL [Accessed: 01.11.2016].

UNICEF JORDAN (2016): The water filler of Za'atari. Amman: UNICEF Jordan. URL [Accessed: 01.11.2016].

UNICEF JORDAN (2015): Ensuring A Safe Environment for Children. Jordan Country Office. Amman: UNICEF Jordan. URL [Accessed: 08.08.2016].

WORLD BANK (2016): Countries in the Region. Washington D.C.: World Bank. URL [Accessed: 14.11.2016].

WORLD BANK (2010): Overview: Water Sector Brief. Washington DC: World Bank. URL [Accessed: 31.08.2016].

ZAYAT (2016): On September 21 2016 in eastern Aleppo in the Syriran Arab Republic, [children] return from the first day of school passing the rubble of houses nearby. In: UNICEF (2016): Syrian Crisis. September 2016. Humanitarian Results. Geneva. URL [Accessed: 01.11.2016].

Further Readings Library

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DIMARZIO, N. (2013): The Humanitarian Response to the Middle East Refugee Crisis. Brooklyn: Diocese of Brooklyn. URL [Accessed: 21.09.2016].

The violence in Syria has contributed to the mass displacement of the civilian population of that country. In the two years since the conflict began, at least two million persons and possibly a far larger number have been forced to flee to surrounding nations in search of safety and another 4.5 million have been displaced internally. The internally displaced are particularly vulnerable, given that they are stuck in the midst of the conflict and at the mercy of combatants on both sides. While international aid organizations remain active in parts of Syria, providing to resources to displaced populations is an immense challenge.

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UNICEF (2015): Humanitarian Action For Children. Geneva: UNICEF. URL [Accessed: 21.09.2016].

The number and magnitude of humanitarian crises in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region continue to expand to unprecedented proportions and have triggered a child protection crisis of immense scale. Escalating conflicts in Iraq, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen; refugee influxes to Jordan and Lebanon; the recent surge in violence in the State of Palestine; volatility in Libya; the protracted crisis in the Sudan; and the influx of refugees into Djibouti have created dire conditions for girls and boys in MENA. In Yemen, a staggering 10 million children are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 500,000 children who may face life-threatening severe acute malnutrition.

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UNHCR (2015): Update on UNHCR’s operations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). URL [Accessed: 02.11.2015].

The updated reports on the Syrian, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen situations for 2016 are provided on the United Nations High Commission for Refugee activities. It also addresses the mixed movement and protection at sea due to people transiting as part of a mixed movement. There is UNHCR has a special Mediterranean initiative to respond to the situation in terms of detention following interception at sea and smuggling is rising. There has been significant progress in responding and protecting refugees and internally displaced people but these faces complex protection and operational challenges. THE UNHCR is striving to create a favourable protection environment by conducting individual registration to have accurate records, by implementing and harmonising strategies for resettlement, adopting legislation on asylum, and promoting legal status and right associated with asylum. The UNHCR is seeking to enhance community-based initiatives which are essential for delivering basic protection and assistance. In order to safeguard against protection of children and prevention of gender-based violence, effort are being made to strength national protection mechanism and reinforcing two-way communication. To find durable solutions for Syrian Refugees the UNHCR is working on resettlement and other forms of admission for Syrian refugees. Public, political and financial operational support is being sought through building strong partnerships through efforts such as the United National Development Program through Regional Refugee and Resilience plan (3RP) and by strengthening strategic partnerships including League of Arab States, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and the Islamic Development Bank. The UNHCR efforts in the region have cost US$ 1.9 billion and there is a requirement for US$ 2.1 billion.

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OCHA (2015): The Middle East and North Africa in Focus. URL [Accessed: 03.11.2016].

There are 57.6 million people in need across the Middle Eeast and North Africa. Concerns focus on protection of civilians lives and their fundamental right, access to people in order to provide humanitarian aid, displacement of people fleeing violence and the immediate basics needs of people that humanitarian agencies are struggling to meet. The article provides the number of people requiring which kind of services (e.g. Shelter, Nutrition, Protection) and which areas have the largest need (top areas are Syria, Yemen, and Libya). The dynamics of internally displaced people are also highlighted in detail in terms of their needs, vulnerabilities, as well as refugee crisis where the refugee hosting countries are detailed. The impact on women and children and the risk of not responding to the humanitarian catastrophe there.

Case Studies Library

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GOVERNMENT OF GERMANY (2016): Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen. German aid provided under difficult conditions. Berlin: The Government of Germany. URL [Accessed: 03.11.2016].

The large extent of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen is deteriorating and more than 21 million people in the country are in urgent need of assistance. Famine is widespread and 370,000 children are suffering from acute malnutrition. Disease like cholera are further weakening the civilian population as fighting continues across the country. The health care system is facing collapse from destroyed infrastructure and lack of medicines, and most people have to access to clean water or sanitation. The aid agencies in the country have distributed almost all medicines and foods as the Red Cross Movement and UN aid agencies strength their programs. Oxfam is implementing a project that will bring drinking water in tanks to more than 60,000 people in the Governates of Hajjah and Al Hudaydah. The Red Cross and its local partners are operating mobile and station health centre to provide care to several thousand people a month. The ADRA and the Relief Agency are working on providing assistance such as tetanus vaccinations, midwifery, and general practitioner care. The German assistance is focused on regions in Yemen with articulately large numbers of internally displaced people.

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UNICEF (2016): Syria Crisis. August 2016 Situation report. Geneva: UNICEF. URL [Accessed: 02.11.2016].

In August 2016, there was a large number of governorates in Aleppo, Homs, Idelb, and Al-Hasakeh, and rural Damascus which witnessed heavy clashes. In Aleppo, UNICEF was involved in life saving response included trucing water due to damages to the water network, providing hygiene supplies, and installing latrines at Al-Hole Camp. The humanitarian situation was observed to be further deteriorating resulting in civilian casualties including children. Civil infrastructure is being impacts such as hospital and schools. Such as on August 2, 2016 a barrel bomb hit the top of Osama Bin Zaid school in Aleppo, destroying the top of the school. Such as On August 6th, when an airstrike hit Al Amal Charity Hospital in Milis town (in the Idleb governorate) killing 13 people. In Aleppo, electricity remained cut through August where fighting hampered repair effort. And power to the water’s pumping stations was cut in early April and affected an estimated 2 million people. Rural areas are also besieged leading to a decrease in requests to approve humanitarian convoys providing aid. Despite this UNICEF reached more than 196, 890 people in 28 hard-to-reach locations and provided water, sanitation and hygiene, nutrition, and child protection.

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OCHA (2016): Iraq: Mosel Humanitarian Response Situation Report. Geneva: Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affaires. URL [Accessed: 02.11.2016].

Fighting continues between ISIL and military forces in the areas between Mosel and Al Qayyarah. As the front line moves closer to the city of Mosel it is expected that the humanitarian need will increase. Almost 18,000 are currently displaced and in need of humanitarian assistance in both camps and host communities. Priorities for humanitarian assistance is for food as people living there have subsisting on food and water and markets are not functions. Medicine is also a prominent need as oil fires continue to cause respiratory problems. In an addition, housing is a concern as houses in some villages are bobby trapped and as unsafe when people return. Humanitarian aid is being coordinated by the High Advisory team that includes the Government of Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and the Military. Humanitarian aid is having trouble reaching recently-retaken villages close to the front lines to provide aid such as food due to safety concerns. In terms of aid for water, sanitation, and hygiene, there are concerns about the potential for contamination of water sources due to fire in the sulphur Factory in Al Qayyarah Jad’ah camp.

Important Weblinks

The Inter-Agency Information Sharing Portal of the inter-agency regional, refugee, resilience plan provides information of the UNHCR total persons of concern and their demographics thereof, news highlights, recent report from their 208 partners (including UNICEF, UNHCR, 3RP, ICRC, MSF, REACH), list of partners working in which sectors, upcoming events, numbers of asylum seeker in Europe.

Provides UNHCR staff updates on its operations and the developing situation. Such as October 24, 2015 UNHCR staff reported from Amman, Jordan, the displacement is expected to rise even further as people find themselves trapped within the war-torn nation’s border. Also on October 25, 2016, when UNHCR staff reported families feeding Mosul assault find safety in Iraq, where fighting is intensifying to re-take the once thriving city of 2.5 million which was captured in June 2014.

This website provides information on operations in the Middle East with active areas currently in Israel, Jordan, Syrian Arab Republic, and Lebanon. Information is provided using a map interphase of asylum seekers, camps, UNHCR offices. Budget information, the demographics of people of concern, information of the operation and environmental strategy is provided for 2014-2016.

Humanitarian information source on global crises and disasters. It is a specialised digital service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). It provides reliable and timely information for humanitarian workers to make timely decisions to plan an effective response.