Population of Syria
Syria’s population is estimated at 20.8 million (World Bank,2011). However, of the Syrian population, over 2.7 million have fled to neighbouring countries as a result of Syria’s conflict (as of May 2014, United Nations). In addition, refugees in Syria were forced to flee Syria due to the war: the number of Iraqi refugees declined from 750,000 in 2011 to 471,400 in 2012 (government estimate). 64,000 of those are registered with UNHCR. Of the 540,000 Palestinian refugees registered with the UNRWA (May 2014), around 270,000 have been displaced inside Syria and over 70,000 to other countries.
Unemployment in Syria increased from 14.9 percent in 2011 to 48.6 percent in the second quarter of 2013, according to the report War on Development by UNRWA/UNDP/Syrian Center for Policy Research.
Life expectancy at birth is 76 years old. The population is young: more than a third (36 percent) is under fifteen years of age.
Areas of Habitation
Syria is strongly urbanized; about half of the population lives in urban centres. Moreover, an estimated 70 percent of the urban population lives in one of the five main cities numbering over a million inhabitants. These cities are, in decreasing order: Aleppo (4 million inhabitants), Damascus (3.8 million), Homs (or Hims) (1.5 million), Hama (1.4 million), and Deir al-Zor (1 million). The number of inhabitants in the seaports Latakia and Tartus are 883,000 and 716,000 respectively.
Although nine out of ten city dwellers (and 83 percent of the rural population) have access to ‘improved’ water and sanitation facilities, this does not mean they have access to water at all times: water cuts – like power cuts – are not uncommon. In addition, the sewage systems are no longer adequate and more often than not, the wastewater is not treated. Nearly one million people still live in slums (see The State of the Environment and Development in the Mediterranean, 2009). These slums have arisen as a result of the rapid urbanization, as well as illegal construction around large cities such as in Damascus and Aleppo. The population in these illegal settlements, which often lack basic amenities, is estimated at 11 percent of the urban population (see the United Nations Development Programme’s report Macroeconomics policies for Poverty Reduction: The Case of Syria, 2005)
Ethnic and Religious Groups
The Syrian population forms a mosaic of cultures and ethnic groups, which has been building up for thousands of years. Their diversity is an essential part of the nation, and was in the past even greater than it is today. This region used to be inhabited by a Jewish minority, most of whom left after the creation of the state of Israel and the increasing animosity of Arab leaders towards Israel and all those considered Zionists. From the very early days of Christianity, a large Christian community also left its mark on Syria. Their numbers have dwindled throughout the centuries, firstly because of the conversions to Islam and secondly – from the late 19th century on – because of migration.
The overwhelming majority of Syrians are Arabs (90.3 percent, CIA, 2012), but there is also a large Kurdish minority, which has increased with the arrival of Iraqi refugees, and a smaller Armenian minority. Among the Arabs, the Bedouin form a separate ‘ethnic’ group. Originally nomads, raising camels or goats, they live mainly in or on the border of the desert in the south of the country. There are also Bedouin more to the north along the Euphrates in central Syria, where, thanks to the possibilities of irrigation, they started to cultivate olives and other crops. Until 1958, they had their own collection of laws and their own representatives in Parliament.
Sunnis and Alawites
In the 21st century, about 87 percent of the Syrians claim to be Muslim. Sunni Muslims are by far the largest group, estimated at 74 percent of the population (CIA, 2012) and some 80 percent of the Muslims. Second are the Alawites (10 percent, CIA, 2012), who, from a theological point of view, are followers of a dissident Shiite Imam, Muhammad ibn Nusayr al-Namiri (9th century). They are therefore also known as Nusayris, although this term is considered demeaning. The term ‘Alawites’ (although its origin is uncertain it is said to refer to Ali, son-in-law and successor to the Prophet Muhammad) is said to have been advanced by the French mandatory power, which strongly supported the Alawite minority. Alawis prefer to use this term instead.
The Alawites used to live mainly in the north-west of the country, in and around the Alawi or Ansariya Mountains, as a rural community. In general, they were extremely poor and viewed as second-class citizens, making a living as goat herds. They thanked their social ascension to the army, where they rose in rank, eventually taking part in the multiple military coups that shook the country between 1949 and 1970, and taking hold of the Baath Party, which had been firmly in power since 1963. The ruling ‘dynasty’, the al-Assad family, also belongs to the Alawite community.
More to the east, in and around the Ghab, the Orontes valley, is the home of the Ismailis, a community of 300,000 to 400,000 individuals. Like the Alawites they belong to a branch of Shia Islam, which branched off from mainstream Shia Islam centuries ago. The Ismaili community worldwide is led by the Aga Khan.
Today, Christians form about 10 percent of the population (CIA, 2012), the largest group being the Greek Orthodox. Other Christian churches in Syria are the Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox), Greek Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Maronite, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Protestant, Nestorian, Latin (Roman Catholic), and Chaldean Church.
Druze and Shiites
Other minority religious groups are the Druze and Shiite Muslims. In Syria, the Shiite form a mere 3 percent of the population, but their group is apparently growing, partly as a result of conversion. This is possibly a result of the popularity of Hezbollah (Hizb Allah, Party of God), a prominent organization in neighbouring Lebanon.
The Druze sect originally came from Egypt in the 11th century. The Druze religion is considered an offshoot of Ismaili Islam. The name Druze probably derives from one of their first leaders, Muhammad al-Darazi. The Druze, persecuted by the Sunni Mamluks of Egypt, took refuge in the mountains of what is now the south-west of Syria and the east of Lebanon. They form a close-knit community, strongly attached to their customs and religion, about which they – like the Alawites – tend to be tight-lipped.
Syrian Kurds (estimated at 1.5 million) aspire to establish their own country (as do those in Turkey and Iraq). The movement seems weaker in Syria (and among the Syrian-Kurdish diaspora) than among the Turkish Kurds. Although it arose later, in the 1980s, it is however growing as community group identity and differentiation increase. Kurds in Syria suffer from discrimination, if only because many thousands failed to register during a census in 1962. Those not registered have no legal existence and no rights (no passports, no right to property, schooling, et cetera). Time and again, they have been promised that they will be granted citizenship – even from Bashar al-Assad himself – but so far to no avail. In an Assessment for Kurds in Syria (2005), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees stated: ‘Most significant is the high level of restrictions faced by Kurds. Syria has an Arabization policy and does not allow Kurds to practice their cultural habits. The Kurdish language, holidays, marriage and right to organization are restricted. Also, the government during the 1980s forcefully relocated some of the Kurdish people to various areas of Syria. However, other than one incident of rebellion in the spring of 2004, Kurds have not employed violence.’
Since then, there have been some (more or less violent) uprisings or other incidents among the Syrian Kurds, that have led to harsh reprisals. In 2005, the disappearance of one of their leaders (probably tortured and killed by the secret services) led to an ‘intifada‘ (uprising) in the north-eastern town of al-Qamishli, leading in turn to numerous arrests. Notorious are the shootings by Syrian security forces during the Kurdish New Year festival, or Nowruz (March 21st). These traditional processions sometimes take a political turn. Since 2007, violent deaths have occurred annually.
The political awakening of the Syrian Kurds more or less coincided with the coming into existence of a semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq. This, in turn, made the Syrian authorities more nervous.
The plight of the Syrian Kurds has changed dramatically since the civil war in Syria began in 2011. In the summer of 2012, Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) took the Kurdish majority regions in the north of the country under their control with little effort, the troops of President al-Assad having left those regions to concentrate on other fronts in the country.
The Kurds, constituting one of the oldest nations of the Middle East, are in the spotlight in 2014 as they fiercely defend their territory against attacks by Islamic State, with the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane becoming a symbol of Kurdish persistence and emerging unity.
Read more about the Kurds in our Kurds Special.
Refugees in Syria
In the past the Syrian mountains served as a refuge for those persecuted elsewhere.
Armenians, the first refugees in modern times (20th century), fled Turkey around 1915 in order to escape the massacres there. More Armenians moved to what had become Lebanon in 1939, when France – which had become the mandatory power in 1920 – handed over the northern sanjak (governorate) of Alexandretta to Turkey. Many Kurds also fled Turkey and – later – Iraq, joining the Kurdish community in Syria.
In 2011, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) registered 1,306,000 refugees in Syria, the majority of whom (480,000) are Iraqis fleeing the violence in their country. Many are Kurds from the region close to the Syrian and Turkish borders. Their numbers have probably since decreased – estimates of their actual number in 2009-2010 balanced around 500,000.
The refugees registered by UNHCR do not include Palestinian refugees, who fall under the authority of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which predates the UNHCR. According to this agency, almost 500,000 registered Palestinian refugees live in Syria, in nine official and three unofficial camps, several of which are in or around Damascus.
The host country also set up ‘unofficial’ camps; refugees in official and unofficial camps have equal access to UNRWA services.
The refugees arrived in several waves. Most came during or shortly after the 1948-1949 Arab-Israeli War. A next wave took place in 1967, during and after the June War, when internally displaced Syrian nationals were forced to flee after Israel occupied the Golan Heights. In 1970, after Black September, Palestinians came from Jordan – although most fled to Lebanon. Finally, some 2,300 Palestinians came from Iraq after the downfall of the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The official number of Palestinian refugees in Syria may not correspond with their actual number. An unknown number of persons has left for other countries while still being registered in Syria.
The population in the Palestinian refugee camps was fast growing, and very young: more than half are under 25. More often than not, the camps are in a deplorable state. UNRWA states: ‘Many of the water and sewerage systems need upgrading, while some camps still lack networks altogether. (…) In most of the refugee camps shelters remain very basic, and many require structural rehabilitation.’ The ‘unofficial’ camp of Yarmouk, within the city boundaries of Damascus, is an exception. First, housing is much better here compared to most of the other camps. Yarmouk has shops and the necessary infrastructure.
Secondly, many refugees in Yarmouk are professionals working as doctors, engineers or civil servants. Palestinian refugees often find employment as wage labourers, (casual) farm workers, in industry or as street vendors. Some work in the unofficial sector, some have become shopkeepers, local civil servants or teachers.
However, since mid-2013, the UNRWA and other UN agencies and international organizations have expressed their concerns about the impact of the armed conflict in Syria on the Palestinian refugees residing in the country, especially Yarmouk camp in Damascus, which hosted at least 130,000 before the outbreak of the conflict in Syria and is thought to be the largest community of Palestinians refugees in Syria. Now, fewer than 20,000 refugees remain in the desolate camp (UNRWA, May 2014).
Sunni Arabs make up three quarters of the Syrian population. As such a large majority, they are to be found in all social classes, although often in urban centres. Alawites are generally of poor rural origin. However, during the past decades many Alawites have joined the military and – by means of the army – become associated with the present ruling class.
The many disparities in standard of living and quality of life seem to be determined predominantly by regional rather than ethnic or religious factors. On the other hand, the population distribution runs along ethnic lines. For instance, many Kurds live in the poor rural governorates in the north-east of Syria (al-Hasaka, al-Raqqa and Deir al-Zor) and close to the Turkish and Iraqi borders. The north-west is the region of origin of the Alawites, although many have moved to the cities, to Damascus in particular. The Anti-Lebanon mountains in the south-west (governorate of al-Suwayda) are home to the Druze (who also live in and around the cities in the north-west) and the Greek Orthodox.
There are important disparities in income, health, life expectancy, and education between rural and urban populations – the latter enjoying, on average, a higher income and better education, sanitation, and health conditions. Better health conditions are only partially income-related. They also depend on the availability of (skilled) services and, in the words of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), ‘of changing the social norms, behaviours and attitudes that inhibit the utilization of the services’. Only three quarters of the rural population have access to health units or hospitals within a distance of five kilometres (Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2003-2004, quoted by UNFPA). On a national level, the proportion of population with access to safe drinking water was 92 percent in 2007. However, the proportion of population with access to sanitation, is much lower (see United Nations Development Programme, Syrian Arab Republic Third National Millennium Development Goals Progress Report, 2010).
The living circumstances of refugees and asylum seekers are precarious. Palestinian refugee camps often lack good housing and adequate sanitation, although the United Nations provide for the most basic of services. The plight of the Iraqis is perhaps even worse, as they have to do without a special United Nations agency. Life in Syria is very expensive for those who fled the violence in Iraq. This is an important reason why many of them have returned to their home country.
Income Distribution and Poverty
Syria’s social landscape is characterized by large income discrepancies. In 2007, 30 percent of the Syrian population still lived in poverty and 12.3 lived below the subsistence level.
Although Syria is trying to bring down the number of people below the poverty line of 1.25 USD, this figure is no longer an appropriate yardstick for measuring extreme poverty (see the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Third National Report on the Millennium Development Goals, 2010). Nevertheless, the millennium goal for 2015 is to reduce the rate of extreme poverty to 7.1 percent. The statistics show important regional differences. For instance, in 2004 the poverty rate was 4.7 percent for Damascus and the eastern desert region of Deir al-Zor (below the targets of 8.5 and 7.4 percent respectively), whereas poverty rates for the northern and southern governorates are far below the national average. The poorest governorates are Latakia (19.88 percent) and al-Raqqa (17.59 percent) in the north and al-Suwayda (17.72 percent) in the extreme south-east.
Although there are no statistics for the regions in 2010, the UNDP report states that ‘the reductions in the rate of rain-fall during the previous years accompanied by sand storms, have reduced the amount of arablje land, which in turn contributed to an increase in poverty in the rural East region (namely Hasakeh, Raga, Dier Ezzor and in particular in vast areas of the steppe of Homs)’. This resulted in reduced local food production as a result of frequent droughts and internal migration.
These inequalities are not limited to income alone.
‘Education is negatively correlated to poverty, since over 18 percent of the poor people are illiterate,’ the report states. Although literacy and school enrolment are, on average, high in Syria – especially compared to other countries in the Middle East – again there are notable regional differences. The percentage of children reaching the sixth year of education is much lower in Aleppo (76 percent), al-Raqqa (82 percent), and al-Hasaka (85 percent). The ratio of women is lagging behind in a number of governorates. In 2004, Latakia, Tartus, and al-Suwayda were the only governorates to achieve the interim goal, while Homs came close.
The same discrepancy is apparent in literacy figures concerning 15 to 24 year olds. In Damascus and Quneitra 99 percent are literate; literacy numbers drop to 81 percent in al-Hasaka and to 78 percent among the rural populations of Deir al-Zor and al-Raqqa. Almost everywhere – except for Latakia and Tartus – women score lower than men. Again, these differences are most striking in al-Hasaka (male literacy 87.8 percent, female 75.6 percent), al-Raqqa (male literacy 85.0, female 71.2 percent) and, notably, Deir al-Zor (male literacy 86.2, female 70.2 percent).
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