Since the Syrian civil war officially began March 15, 2011, families have suffered under brutal conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, torn the nation apart, and set back the standard of living by decades. Today 13.1 million people in the country need humanitarian assistance.
Healthcare centers and hospitals, schools, utilities, and water and sanitation systems are damaged or destroyed. Historic landmarks and once-busy marketplaces have been reduced to rubble.
War broke the social and business ties that bound neighbors to their community. So millions scattered, creating the largest refugee and displacement crisis of our time. More than 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country as refugees, and 6.1 million are displaced within Syria — as internally displaced people (IDPs). Half of people affected by the terrible results are children.
History of the Syrian refugee crisis
2010 — Syria is a modern society built on the cradle of civilization.
- Syria’s rich cultural history dates back more than 8,000 years. It is an economically fast-growing lower-middle-income country, according to the World Bank. Agriculture, industry, tourism, and oil are economic mainstays. Healthcare and primary and secondary education are free. (Find out how the war has damaged Syria’s social and economic systems.) President Bashar al Assad had succeeded his father as ruler.
2011 — The Syrian civil war begins.
- March: Peaceful protests in southern cities are met with violent crackdowns by Syrian security forces. Hopes of Arab Spring reforms are dashed by armed repression. Opposition groups organize but can’t seem to unite. International sanctions and other attempts to pressure the government to moderate are futile; its actions are met with defiance.
2012 — Syrians flee bombing and repression.
- Lebanon becomes a major destination for Syrian refugees. Many still hope they’ll return home soon.
- Za’atari refugee camp opens in Jordan near the Syrian border. Though designed as a temporary settlement, it became home to tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who have stayed for years.
- August: Syria has committed war crimes, according to the U.N. Human Rights Council.
2013 — Conflict increases as other countries join the fight.
- March: Syrian refugees total 1 million.
- April: Chemical attacks are confirmed. President Assad is accused of the attacks.
- September: Syrian refugees total 2 million.
2014 — Humanitarian needs increase, but access to people in need becomes more difficult for aid groups.
- April: Azraq camp opens in Jordan; 1 million refugees are now in Lebanon, estimated to be one quarter of the country’s population. The large number of refugees puts a severe strain on the nation’s social systems.
- June: ISIL declares a caliphate in Syria and Iraq’s occupied territory. Syrian refugees number 3 million in countries neighboring Syria; 100,000 people have reached Europe.
2015 — Europe feels the pressure of Syrian refugees and migrants.
- Hungary erects a border wall, then closes their border with Serbia to stop refugees from entering Europe.
- The World Food Program cuts rations to refugees in Lebanon and Jordan due to a funding shortfall.
- September: The photo of 2-year-old Alan Kurdi (initially reported as Aylan Kurdi) shocks the world. “That could have been me,” Dr. Vinh Chung told CNN’s Carol Costello of Alan Kurdi. “The body of the lifeless toddler, face down, washed up on the beach is really chilling to me — because that could have been me.”
- Thousands of refugees arrive daily in Greece; 1 million refugees reach Europe during 2015.
2016 — Syria is devastated by years of war.
- February: U.S. and Russian delegates negotiate a temporary cessation of hostilities, sanctioned by the U.N., to send aid to hard-to-reach populations in Syria.
- June: Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees are trapped in no-man’s-land when Jordan closes the border after a car bombing (about 55,000 remain there in 2018).
- December: Civilians are caught in the crossfire as Syrian government retakes Aleppo from rebels. A ceasefire to free them fails.
2017 — Syrians seek safety, stability.
- March: More than 5 million people have fled conflict in Syria.
- April: 58 people are killed in suspected nerve gas attack.
- July: A ceasefire is brokered at the G20 meeting for southwest Syria. Clashes are ongoing in Dara, ar Raqqa, Homs, and Hama governorates and Deir Ezzor city. More than 900,000 Syrians have been displaced this year.
2018 — Humanitarian aid is limited as conflict continues.
- Fighting continues, despite international agreements for de-escalation.
- Humanitarian access is limited because of insecurity, and 2.9 million people remain in hard-to-reach areas where aid is not supplied on a regular basis.
- March 15: Syria enters the eighth year of the Syrian civil war.
World Vision’s work helping Syrian refugees
World Vision been working in the Middle East for nearly 40 years and is dedicated to improving the lives of children, families, and the communities where they live through long-term sustainable development as well are responding to emergencies — both natural and man-made.
World Vision quickly extended a helping hand to Syrian families who fled to Lebanon in 2011. Since then, our work has expanded to other countries hosting Syrian refugees and into Syria. Children and their long-term needs are always first in our minds as we plan our programming.
2011 to 2012 — The Syrian refugee crisis begins.
- Lebanon: World Vision and other aid groups help Syrian refugees in our northern service area with basic needs.
- March: Refugees flood the impoverished Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. World Vision expands services, building on 10 years of children’s programming there.
2013 — Humanitarian needs increase.
- March: World Vision aid work begins in Jordan for refugees and host communities, with a focus on education as well as basic needs
- April: We begin aid to displaced people in Syria, providing food, water, healthcare, and household supplies.
2014 — Iraqis flee violence.
- World Vision starts to aid Syrian refugees in the Kurdish region of Iraq, where there are about 200,000 Syrian refugees and more than 1 million Iraqis who have fled ISIL attacks. Our aid includes mobile health clinics, food vouchers, water systems.
2015 — Refugees and migrants flock to Europe.
- September: As more refugees attempt to reach Europe through the Balkans, we provide food, water, hygiene goods, and rest places for women and children in Serbia.
2016 to 2018 — World Vision’s work meets needs in the Middle East.
- Battles for Mosul, Iraq, and Aleppo, Syria, leads to civilian displacement and suffering. World Vision programs benefit 2.3 million refugees, IDPs, and locals in host communities in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. About 47,000 people receive winter and household supplies.
- In 2017, we help nearly 15,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey. Working through partners, we provide access to legal services, protection, translation, and nonformal education to help them cope in their new environment.
FAQs: What you need to know about the Syrian refugee crisis, and learn how you can help Syrian refugees
Explore FAQs about the Syrian civil war, and learn how you can help Syrian refugees and displaced families:
- Fast facts: What is happening in Syria?
- Why is there a Syrian civil war?
- What are Syrians’ greatest needs?
- How can I help Syrian refugees?
- What started the Syrian civil war?
- Why are Syrians fleeing their homes?
- Where are Syrian refugees going?
- How is the Syrian civil war affecting children?
- What is World Vision doing to help Syrians affected by conflict?
Fast facts: What is happening in Syria?
The tragedy in Syria continues to grow, affecting millions of people. For many Syrian children, all they have known is war. It’s impossible for us to imagine the extreme effect this is having on the mental, physical, and social health of the future generation of children who will need to rebuild Syria.
- Conflict and displacement are intensifying in northwest Syria. Some 212,000 people have fled their homes since mid-December 2017. Most internally displaced people are living in makeshift shelters with little access to aid. Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, is another area of intense fighting unreached by aid.
- The city of Raqqa, ISIL’s former stronghold in Syria, was retaken in October 2017. Much of the area is still contaminated by explosives and, therefore, not safe for families to return home.
- In 2017, 74 cases of polio were detected in Syria, which was polio-free before the civil war.
- World Vision’s work in northern Syria benefits many people who fled Aleppo during intense fighting in late 2016. Before the civil war, Aleppo was a financial and industrial center and Syria’s largest city; it also contained a large population of Christians. Now it is reduced to the second-largest city in Syria and recognized as the worst-hit during the Syrian civil war.
- An estimated 13.1 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance as a result of the civil war that began in 2011.
Why is there a Syrian civil war?
Conflict broke out in 2011 after a forceful crackdown on peaceful student protests against the government of Bashar al-Assad. The conflict has continued and accelerated as government troops, armed rebels, and external forces clash, take territory from each other, and vie to hold it. The consequences are tragic for civilians, particularly children.
What are Syrians’ greatest needs?
Syrians fleeing conflict often leave everything behind. So they need all the basics to sustain their lives: food, clothing, healthcare, shelter, and household and hygiene items. Refugees also need reliable supplies of clean water, as well as sanitation facilities. Children need a safe environment and a chance to play and go to school. Adults need employment options in cases of long-term displacement.
How can I help Syrian refugees?
You can help Syrian refugees by praying for them, using your gifts and influence for their benefit, and learning more about the Syrian refugee crisis.
- Pray: Lift up the needs of Syrian families caught up in conflict, refugee children, and aid workers.
- Give: When you donate, you become a vital partner in World Vision’s work to help refugees in the Middle East.
- Speak up: Ask Congress to prioritize the refugee crisis in humanitarian funding decisions.
- Learn more: Read Rich Stearns’ Understanding the Syria Crisis and the Role of the Church. It is also a great discussion-starter for small groups.
What started the Syrian civil war?
The Syrian civil war started with peaceful protests. Young people took to the streets in Syria’s southern city, Daraa, in March 2011, seeking government reforms. The movement was part of the social media-fueled Arab Spring that swept through the Middle East and North Africa. March 15, dubbed the “day of rage,” was a turning point, which is why it is internationally recognized as the anniversary of the Syrian civil war.
As protests spread through Syria, they were countered by strong government crackdowns and increasing violence from both government forces and protesters. By the following year, Syria was embroiled in a civil war, with the Syrian military opposing a growing number of militant groups. Conflict has torn apart the lives of Syrian children and families as government forces and militant groups fight to take and rule territory.
The country’s weakened governance, as well as the destruction of its social services and institutions, make Syria a textbook case of a fragile state.
Why are Syrians fleeing their homes?
Syrians flee their homes when life becomes unbearable. Some of the top reasons they cite include:
- Violence: Since the Syrian civil war began, an estimated 470,000 people have been killed, including about 55,000 children, reports the Syrian Center for Policy Research. The war has become deadlier since foreign powers joined the conflict.
- Collapsed infrastructure: Within Syria, 95 percent of people lack adequate healthcare and 70 percent lack regular access to clean water. Half the children are out of school. The economy is shattered, and 80 percent of the population lives in poverty.
- Children in danger and distress: Syrian children — the nation’s hope for a better future — have lost loved ones, suffered injuries, missed years of schooling, and experienced unspeakable violence and brutality.
Mohammed almost waited too late to get his family to Lebanon safely. Bombs destroyed their home and shop; his brother was killed. Other families say their turning point was when militants occupied their school, or their hospital was destroyed.
Where are Syrian refugees going?
- Turkey — 3.5 million Syrian refugees are in Turkey. Ninety percent of Syrian refugees in Turkey live outside of camps and have limited access to basic services.
- Lebanon — 1 million Syrian refugees make up about one-fifth of Lebanon’s population. Many live in primitive conditions in informal tent settlements, which are not official refugee camps. With few legal income opportunities, they struggle to afford residency fees, rent, utilities, and food.
- Jordan — 658,000 Syrian refugees are in Jordan. Some 133,000 live in refugee camps, including Za’atari and Azraq, where aid groups have converted desert wastes into cities.
- Iraq — 247,000 Syrian refugees are in Iraq. They are concentrated in the Kurdistan region in the north where more than a million Iraqis fled to escape ISIL. Most refugees are integrated into communities but the large number of newcomers puts a strain on services.
- Egypt — 127,000 Syrian refugees are in Egypt.
At the peak of the European migrant crisis in 2015, 1.3 million Syrians requested asylum in Europe. But the number of new asylum seekers has declined significantly since then.
In contrast, the United States admitted 18,000 Syrian refugees between October 2011 and Dec. 31, 2016. Read the story of Washington state resident Cari Conklin, who was among a group who greeted the first Syrian family to arrive in Seattle November 2015 — Bassam Alhamdan, his wife, Rabah, and their six children. They had escaped hell in Syria, suffered terribly as refugees in Jordan, and then were given the miraculous opportunity to come to the U.S.
How is the Syrian civil war affecting children?
The Syrian civil war has stolen the childhood of millions of children and affected their long-term physical and mental health and prospects for the future. Many children caught up in this crisis lost family members and friends to the violence, suffered physical and psychological trauma, and had to leave school.
- Diseases and malnutrition: Children are susceptible to ailments brought on by poor sanitation, including diarrheal diseases like cholera. They may miss vaccinations and regular health checkups, especially in cut-off areas. In poor housing, cold weather increases the risk of pneumonia and other respiratory infections.
- Child labor and child soldiers: Many refugee children have to work to support their families. Often they work in dangerous or demeaning circumstances for little pay. Warring parties forcibly recruit children who serve as fighters, human shields, and in support roles, according to the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report.
- Child marriage and abuse: Children are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation in the unfamiliar and overcrowded conditions found in camps and informal tent settlements. Without adequate income to support their families and fearful of their daughters being molested, parents may opt to arrange a marriage for girls, some as young as 13. In 2016, rates of child marriage reached 20 percent in Lebanon and more than 30 percent in Jordan.
- Lack of education opportunities: More than 2 million Syrian children are out of school, according to a UNICEF report from 2017. In Syria, the war reversed two decades of educational progress. One-third of schools are not in use because they have been damaged, destroyed, or occupied.
If you could see through a Syrian refugee child’s eyes, what would life look like? In an informal tent settlement in Lebanon, we asked children to show us. These are the scenes they wanted to share. Read more about how the war is affecting Syria’s children in a special report from World Vision magazine, “Syria Crisis and the Scars of War.”
What is World Vision doing to help Syrians affected by conflict?
World Vision provides aid to children and families in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, as well as Iraq, which has also suffered from conflict and humanitarian crises. Since the Syrian civil war began, we have helped more than 2 million people in the region.
- Syria: Healthcare; emergency food, water, sanitation, and hygiene; shelter repair kits; Child-Friendly Spaces and child protection training
- Jordan and Lebanon: Food assistance, clean water and sanitation, education and recreation, Child-Friendly Spaces and child protection training for adults, livelihoods support, and psychosocial support to women and children
- Iraq: Food aid, health services, water and sanitation, livelihoods training; for children — education, recreation, and programs in life skills, peacebuilding, and resilience
Contributors: World Vision staff in Lebanon and Jordan; Chris Huber, Kathryn Reid, and Denise C. Koenig, World Vision staff in the U.S.