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Editor's note: This article was originally published August 13, 2013; it was updated October 1, 2018 to reflect the latest information.
The Syrian conflict has created the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. Over half of the country’s pre-war population — more than 12 million people — have been killed or forced to flee their homes.
Families are struggling to survive inside Syria, or make a new home in neighboring countries. Others are risking their lives on the way to Europe, hoping to find acceptance and opportunity. And harsh winters and hot summers make life as a refugee even more difficult. At times, the effects of the conflict can seem overwhelming.
But one fact is simple: millions of Syrians need our help. According to the U.N., £3 billion was required to meet the urgent needs of the most vulnerable Syrians in 2017 — but only a little more than half was received.
You can help. The more you know about the crisis, the more we can do together to help those in need. The lifesaving work we do, empowering people to survive through crisis and build better lives, is only possible with your knowledge and support.
So take a few minutes to understand the magnitude of this crisis. Read below to learn the facts behind the figures.
When did the crisis in Syria start?
Anti-government demonstrations began in March of 2011, as part of the Arab Spring. But the peaceful protests quickly escalated after the government's violent crackdown, and armed opposition groups began fighting back.
By July, army defectors had loosely organised the Free Syrian Army and many civilian Syrians took up arms to join the opposition. Divisions between secular and religious fighters, and between ethnic groups, continue to complicate the politics of the conflict.
What is happening to Syrians caught in the war?
The war has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the seven years since it began. Crowded cities have been destroyed and horrific human rights violations are widespread. Basic necessities like food and medical care are sparse.
The U.N. estimates that 6.6 million people are internally displaced. When you also consider refugees, well over half of the country’s pre-war population of 22 million is in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, whether they still remain in the country or have escaped across the borders.
The situation in Syria went from bad to worse when outside parties became involved in the conflict in the fall of 2015. As conflict intensifies, our teams on the ground have seen an increase in the number of civilian casualties and families forced to leave their homes in search of safety.
In December 2016, fighting in Aleppo City intensified and the warring parties came to an agreement to evacuate East Aleppo. People, including some of our own team members, were forced to flee their homes and the city they had lived in all their lives, leaving their belongings behind. We met those who made it out with critical supplies in areas of northern Syria. Now, even more Syrians have been displaced.
What is happening in Idlib, Syria?
Airstrikes and bombings have been intensifying in Idlib over the past few months. About a third of the nearly three million people estimated to be living in Idlib now were previously displaced from elsewhere in the country, and they once again find themselves in harm's way.
Many of the people we assist are among those who have been displaced multiple times. With main exits from the city now closed, many are now trapped in Idlib. Another approximately 30,000 people have fled the escalating violence.
More than 2 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance even before the fighting began. Basics such as food and clean water are increasingly difficult to access because the crossing points — between the government and opposition controlled areas — are closed. As a result, food prices have dramatically increased.
In Idlib, we provide food, clean water, hygiene supplies and psychosocial support to young people who remain in Syria under profoundly stressful conditions.
Where are Syrians fleeing to?
More than 6.6 million people have fled their homes and remain displaced within Syria. Some 1.8 million of whom were newly displaced in 2017 — approximately 6,550 people displaced each day. They live in informal settlements, crowded in with extended family or sheltering in damaged or abandoned buildings. Some people survived the horrors of multiple displacements, besiegement, hunger and disease and fled to areas where they thought they would be safe, only to find themselves caught up in the crossfire once again. Across northern Syria, we are seeing that 20-60 percent of the population is made up of people who have had to flee their homes — many of them more than once.
More than 1.6 million Syrian refugees are living in Jordan and Lebanon, where Mercy Corps has been addressing their needs since 2012. In the region’s two smallest countries, weak infrastructure and limited resources are nearing a breaking point under the strain.
In August 2013, more Syrians escaped into northern Iraq at a newly-opened border crossing. Now they are trapped by that country's own internal conflict, and Iraq is struggling to meet the needs of Syrian refugees on top of 2 million internally displaced Iraqis — efforts that we are working to support.
More than 3.5 million Syrian refugees have fled across the border into Turkey, overwhelming urban host communities and creating new cultural tensions.
Many Syrians are also deciding they are better off starting over in Europe, attempting the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to Greece. Not all of them make it across alive. Those who do make it still face steep challenges — resources are strained, services are minimal and much of the route into western Europe has been closed.
How are people escaping Syria?
Thousands of Syrians flee their country every day. They often decide to finally escape after seeing their neighborhoods attacked or family members killed.
The risks on the journey to the border can be as high as staying: Families walk for miles through the night to avoid being shot at by snipers or being caught by warring parties who will kidnap young men to fight for their cause.
How many Syrian refugees are there?
According to the U.N., more than 12 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes — enough people to fill roughly 221 Yankee Stadiums. This includes about 5.6 million refugees who have been forced to seek safety in neighboring countries, out of a total 6.3 million Syrian refugees worldwide — almost one-third of the world’s total refugee population.
Every year of the conflict has seen an exponential growth in refugees. In July 2012, there were 100,000 refugees. One year later, there were 1.5 million. That tripled by the end of 2015.
Today there are 5.6 million Syrians scattered throughout the region, making them the world's largest refugee population under the United Nations' mandate. It's the worst exodus since the Rwandan genocide 24 years ago.
Do all refugees live in camps?
The short answer: no. Only about 8 percent of Syrian refugees live in camps. The majority are struggling to settle in unfamiliar urban communities or have been forced into informal rural environments.
Jordan’s Zaatari, the first official refugee camp that opened in July 2012, gets the most news coverage because it is the destination for newly-arrived refugees. It is also the most concentrated settlement of refugees: Approximately 80,000 Syrians live in Zaatari, making it one of the country’s largest cities.
The formerly barren desert is crowded with acres of white tents, makeshift shops line a “main street” and sports fields and schools are available for children.
Azraq, a camp opened in April 2014, is carefully designed to provide a sense of community and security, with steel caravans instead of tents, a camp supermarket, and organised "streets" and "villages."
Because Jordan’s camps are run by the government and the U.N. — with many partner organizations like Mercy Corps coordinating services — they offer more structure and support. But many families feel trapped, crowded, and even farther from any sense of home, so they seek shelter in nearby towns.
Iraq has set up a few camps to house the influx of refugees who arrived in 2013, but the majority of families are living in urban areas. And in Lebanon, the government has no official camps for refugees, so families establish makeshift camps or find shelter in derelict, abandoned buildings. In Turkey, the majority of refugees are trying to survive and find work, despite the language barrier, in urban communities.
What conditions are Syrian refugees facing outside camps?
Some Syrians know people in neighboring countries who they can stay with. But many host families were already struggling on meagre incomes and do not have the room or finances to help as the crisis drags on.
Refugees find shelter wherever they can. Our teams have seen families living in rooms with no heat or running water, in abandoned chicken coops and in storage sheds.
Most refugees must find a way to pay rent, even for derelict structures. Without any legal way to work in Jordan and Lebanon, they struggle to find odd jobs and accept low wages that often don’t cover their most basic needs. The situation is slightly better in the Kurdish Autonomous region of northern Iraq, where Syrian Kurds can legally work, but opportunities are now limited because of the conflict there. And language is still a barrier.
The lack of clean water and sanitation in crowded, makeshift settlements is an urgent concern. Diseases can easily spread — even more life-threatening without enough medical services. Reports indicate that as much as 35 percent of the population is currently relying on unsafe sources to meet daily water needs. In some areas with the largest refugee populations, water shortages have reached emergency levels; the supply has been as low as 22 liters per person per day — less than one-tenth of what the average American uses.
The youngest refugees face an uncertain future. Some schools have been able to divide the school day into two shifts and make room for more Syrian students. But there is simply not enough space for all the children, and many families cannot afford the transportation to get their kids to school.
How many Syrian refugees are children?
According to the U.N., almost half of all Syrian refugees — roughly 2.7 million — are under the age of 18. Most have been out of school for months, if not years. About 37,500 school buses would be needed to drive every young refugee to school.
The youngest are confused and scared by their experiences, lacking the sense of safety and home they need. The older children are forced to grow up too fast, finding work and taking care of their family in desperate circumstances.
One demographic that is largely overlooked is adolescents. Through Mercy Corps’ extensive work in and around Syria, we continuously witness young adults and adolescents in crisis.
The consequence of forgetting the unique needs of this next generation is they will become adults who are ill-equipped to mend torn social fabric and rebuild broken economies. Investing in adolescents now will yield dividends for decades to come for the peace and productivity so desperately needed in Syria and the region.
Is there enough assistance to reach everyone?
With no peace in sight, Mercy Corps and other humanitarian organizations are struggling just to keep up with needs that continue to grow exponentially. U.N. appeals have been significantly underfunded every single year since the start of the Syrian crisis.
According to the U.N., £3 billion was required in 2017 to provide emergency support and stabilisation to families throughout the region — but just over half was received.
This year, £3 billion is required, and only 37 percent has been received.
It’s essential that, in addition to funding emergency assistance, the U.N. and donor governments fund long-term programmes that address the underlying causes of the Syrian conflict, build resilience and promote peaceful communities.
What is Mercy Corps’ position on possible military action in response to the alleged chemical attack in Syria?
As humanitarians, Mercy Corps' work depends on our living our values of neutrality, impartiality and independence. We cannot speak to military action; instead what we can and must do is call the attention of the world to those innocent civilians in Syria who are caught in the crossfire and need our support.
Whatever decisions policymakers in Washington, DC, at the United Nations and around the world come to, we urge them to be mindful of their responsibility to take all possible measures to protect innocent civilians in times of war. And to allow us, as humanitarians, the access we need to do our lifesaving work.
Our Syrian teams and partners are in many cases risking their lives to provide support to the communities around them. They suffer alongside their neighbors as they are helping. We must do all we can to support them.
Mercy Corps works with refugees like Maram to find work that helps them meet their families’ immediate needs.
What can we do to help the people of Syria?
Mercy Corps is working hard to relieve the intense suffering of civilians inside Syria, as well as that of refugees seeking safety in neighboring countries.
Today, our team members are helping hundreds of thousands of people affected by the crisis each month.
We are delivering food and clean water, restoring sanitation systems, improving shelters and providing families with clothing, mattresses and other household essentials. We are helping children cope with extreme stress and leading constructive activities to nurture their healthy development, while helping host communities and refugees work together to mitigate tensions and find solutions to limited resources. We are also supporting livelihood development through distribution of items like seeds and tools and facilitation of cash grants and business courses.
We’ve worked in the region for 20 years and are committed to helping Syrians and the countries hosting them for as long as it takes.