From the Field

Syrian refugee crisis: Facts, FAQs, and how to help

After 11 years of war, the Syrian refugee crisis remains the world’s largest refugee and displacement crisis of our time. Since conflict in Syria began in 2011, families have suffered under brutal violence that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, torn the nation apart, and set back the standard of living by decades.

FAQs: What you need to know about the Syrian refugee crisis

Explore facts and frequently asked questions about the war in Syria and its resulting refugee crisis, and learn how to help Syrian refugees and displaced families within the war-torn country.

Fast facts: What is currently happening in the Syrian conflict?

Many Syrian children have only ever known war. These grim circumstances have had an extreme effect on their mental, physical, and social health, jeopardizing the future of children who will one day need to rebuild Syria.

  • In 2021, more than 6.8 million refugees were from Syria — more than any other country in the world.
  • An estimated 5.8 million children need humanitarian aid to meet their basic needs in Syria and neighboring countries.
  • 12 million people are food insecure, an increase of 51% since 2019.
  • 6.9 million people are displaced within Syria.
  • Syria is among the most dangerous countries in the world.
  • More than 3.6 million refugees are hosted in neighboring Turkey, the largest refugee population worldwide
  • Nearly 13,000 children have died or been injured in Syria since the beginning of the war.
  • More than 50% of Syrians live in extreme poverty, on less than $1.90 a day.

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Help refugee children and families fleeing violence.

What is the Syrian refugee crisis?

The Syrian refugee crisis is the humanitarian emergency resulting from the Syrian civil war that began March 15, 2011. Conflict in Syria has exacted a heavy toll on hundreds of thousands of children and their families. It created the largest refugee and displacement crisis of our time, affecting millions of people and spilling into surrounding countries.

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How many Syrians are forcibly displaced?

About 13 million Syrians in total are forcibly displaced, more than half of the country’s population. Of these, 6.8 million are refugees and asylum-seekers who have fled the country. (Asylum-seekers are people who’ve applied for refugee status,) The rest, 6.9 million people, are displaced within Syria.

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When did the Syrian civil war start?

The Syrian civil war started when major conflict broke out March 15, 2011, after a forceful crackdown on peaceful student protests against the government of Bashar al-Assad. Conflict continues with insecurity in parts of the country. The consequences are tragic for civilians, particularly children.

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What started the Syrian civil war?

The Syrian civil war started with peaceful protests. Young people took to the streets in the southern city of 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” in Syria, 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. As government forces and militant groups fight to take and rule territory, conflict has torn apart the lives of millions of Syrian children and families, resulting in what is now known as the Syrian refugee crisis.

The country’s weakened governance, as well as the destruction of its social services and institutions, make Syria a very dangerous place — which is why experts have categorized it as one of the world’s fragile contexts.

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Why are Syrians leaving their homes?

Some of the reasons Syrians have been forced to leave their homes include:

  • Violence: Since the civil war began, close to 13,000 children have lost their lives or been injured.
  • Collapsed infrastructure: 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 severed the social and business ties that bound neighbors to their community. Conflict has shattered the economy, and more than 90% 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. An estimated 2.4 million children are out of school.

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Where are Syrian refugees going?

The majority of Syria’s 6.8 million refugees remain in the Middle East, having fled — by land and sea — across borders to neighboring countries.

  • Turkey — More than 3.6 million Syrian refugees are in Turkey, the largest refugee population worldwide. Most Syrian refugees in Turkey live outside of refugee camps and have limited access to basic services.
  • Lebanon — About 831,000 Syrian refugees make up more than 14% of Lebanon’s population. Many live in primitive conditions in informal tent settlements, which are not official refugee camps. With few legal opportunities to earn money, they struggle to afford residency fees, rent, utilities, and food.
  • Jordan — 675,000 Syrian refugees are in Jordan. Some 120,000 people live in the Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps, where aid groups have converted desert wastes into cities.
  • Iraq — Over 260,000 Syrian refugees are in Iraq. Most are in the Kurdistan region in the north where more than a million Iraqis fled to escape ISIS. Most refugees are integrated into communities, putting a strain on services.
  • Egypt — 141,300 Syrian refugees are in Egypt.

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Syrian refugee crisis map of where refugees have fled to escape a violent civil war.
Most refugees from Syria are still in the region. They’ve fled violence and sought refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. (©World Vision)

How is the Syrian civil war affecting children?

Many Syrian children have never known a time without war. For millions of them, the conflict has stolen their childhood and affected their long-term physical and mental health as well as their prospects for the future. Many children caught up in this crisis have lost family members and friends to the violence, suffered physical and psychological trauma, and found themselves without access to education.

Here are some specific threats to children:

  • Diseases and malnutrition: Children are susceptible to ailments brought on by poor sanitation and hygiene, 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. Lack of access to healthy foods weakens them further.
  • Child labor, including becoming 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 often also forcibly recruit children as fighters or human shields, and for support roles, according to the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report.
  • Child marriage and abuse: Syrian children are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation in the unfamiliar and overcrowded conditions found in refugee 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.
  • Lack of education opportunities: In Syria, the war reversed more than two decades of educational progress. One in two school-aged children are not in school. One in three schools have been damaged or destroyed or are occupied by military groups.

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What is World Vision doing to help Syrians affected by conflict?

World Vision has been working in the Middle East region for nearly 40 years. We’re dedicated to improving the lives of children, families, and the communities where they live through long-term sustainable development as well as responding to disasters — both natural and man-made.

World Vision quickly came alongside 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 our first priority as we plan our programming.

World Vision provides aid to children and families in Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, all of which have suffered from the conflict and resulting humanitarian crisis. Since the Syrian refugee crisis began, we’ve helped more than 7.5 million children and their families in the region. Our work has focused on, among other things:

  • Syria: healthcare, emergency food, clean water and improved sanitation, promotion of safe hygiene, shelter repair kits, Child-Friendly Spaces for kids, and child protection training for adults
  • Lebanon and Jordanfood assistance, clean water and improved sanitation, education and recreation, Child-Friendly Spaces for kids and child protection training for adults, livelihoods support, and psychosocial support for women and children
  • Turkey: Child-Friendly Spaces for kids and child protection training for adults, livelihoods support, and psychosocial support for children and teens
  • Iraq: food aid, health services, clean water and improved sanitation, livelihoods training, education and recreation, and programs for children in life skills, peacebuilding, and resilience

From October 2018 to November 2020, World Vision led Facilitating Assistance to Syria Together (FAST), a consortium of humanitarian aid partners and local organizations, in its goal to help 3.6 million people in northwest Syria with emergency healthcare, shelter, and clean water and effective sanitation and hygiene. The two-year, $80-million project was funded by USAID.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve provided access to remote remedial classes in host communities, vocational training activities with the appropriate physical distancing measures, hygiene kits and promotion of safe hygiene practices, and livelihoods and rehabilitation projects.

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Syrian refugees in Lebanon affected by a winter storm in January 2019. Warm clothes and hygiene kits are among the supplies Syrian refugees receive from World Vision in the aftermath of a devastating winter storm in Lebanon. World Vision brought aid to more than 2,000 people within three days of the Jan. 6 storm that brought rain, snow, and flooding.
Warm clothes and hygiene kits are among the supplies Syrian refugees receive from World Vision in the aftermath of a devastating winter storm in Lebanon. World Vision assisted more than 2,000 people within three days of the January 6 storm that brought rain, snow, and flooding. (©2019 World Vision/photo by George Mghames)

How can I help Syrian refugees?

Families fleeing conflict in their country often leave everything behind. They’re in need of the basics to sustain their lives: food, clothing, healthcare, shelter, and household and hygiene items. Refugees also need reliable access to 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.

You can help Syrian refugees by praying for them, using your gifts for their benefit, and learning more facts about the Syrian refugee crisis.

  • Pray: Lift up the needs of Syrian families caught up in conflict, refugee children, and aid workers.
  • Give: Become a vital partner in World Vision’s work to help refugee children and families.

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Syrian refugee crisis timeline

2010: Syria is a modern society built on the cradle of civilization.

2011: The Syrian civil war begins.

  • Violent crackdowns by Syrian security forces begin after peaceful protests in southern cities in March. Armed repression dashes hopes of Arab Spring reforms. Opposition groups organize but can’t seem to unite.
  • International sanctions and other attempts to pressure the government to moderate are futile.

2012: Syrians flee bombing and oppression.

  • March: Syrian refugees flood the impoverished Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. World Vision expands services, building on 10 years of children’s programming there.
  • July: 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, acts that violate accepted international agreements and may even involve actions against civilians, according to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

2013: Conflict increases.

  • March: Syrian refugees total 1 million.
  • World Vision aid work begins in Jordan for refugees and host communities, focusing on education as well as basic needs.
  • April: Chemical attacks are confirmed. Syrian President Assad is accused of the attacks.
  • We begin aid to displaced people in Syria, providing food, water, healthcare, and household supplies.
  • September: Syrian refugees total 2 million.

2014: Humanitarian needs increase, but access to people in need becomes more difficult for aid groups.

  • January: World Vision builds water and sanitation infrastructure to meet the needs of up to 30,000 people at Azraq refugee camp.
  • April: Azraq refugee camp opens in Jordan; Lebanon hosts 1 million refugees, nearly one-sixth of the country’s population. The large number of refugees puts a severe strain on the nation’s social systems.
  • June: ISIS 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.
  • World Vision provides aid to Syrian refugees in the Kurdish region of Iraq, where there are about 250,000 Syrian refugees and more than 1 million Iraqis who have fled ISIS attacks. Our aid includes mobile health clinics, food vouchers, and water systems.

2015: Europe feels the pressure of Syrian refugees and migrants.

  • Hungary erects a border wall, then closes the border with Serbia to stop refugees from entering Europe.
  • The World Food Programme 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.”
  • As more refugees attempt to reach Europe through the Balkans, World Vision provides food, water, hygiene goods, and rest places for women and children in Serbia.
  • Thousands of refugees arrive daily in Greece; 1 million refugees reach Europe during 2015.

2016: Years of war have devastated Syria.

  • 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: Jordan closes the border after a car bombing, trapping tens of thousands of Syrian refugees in no man’s land.
  • December: Civilians are caught in the crossfire as the 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: A suspected nerve gas attack kills 58 people.
  • July: A ceasefire is brokered at the G20 meeting for southwest Syria. Clashes are ongoing in Daraa, ar Raqqa, Homs, and Hama provinces and the city of Deir ez-Zor.
  • More than 900,000 Syrians are displaced due to violence this year.
  • World Vision reaches 2.2 million people in the Middle East with aid. In 2017, we help nearly 15,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey. Working through partners, we provide access to legal services, protection, translation, and informal education to help them cope in their new environment.

2018: Conflict continues, limiting humanitarian aid.

  • Fighting continues, despite international agreements for de-escalation.
  • Insecurity limits humanitarian access, and 2.9 million people remain in hard-to-reach areas where aid is not supplied on a regular basis.
  • In 2018, World Vision distributes hygiene supplies to displaced families in Idlib and A’zaz, Syria, including people escaping attacks in Eastern Ghouta.

2019: Syrian refugees experience new hardships.

  • January to February: Winter storms batter Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan with snow, rain, heavy winds, and near-freezing temperatures. World Vision provides aid in Syria and Lebanon to Syrians affected by flooding and cold.
  • April to September: Conflict increases in northwest Syria resulting in healthcare facilities being destroyed and more than 400,000 people displaced from May to October. World Vision responds to the increased needs of children and families fleeing conflict in northern Syria.
  • October through December: In addition to health services, shelter assistance, and protection, World Vision provides for the water and sanitation needs of 181,000 people in Syria.

2020: More families flee.

  • February: About 900,000 people in northwest Syria have fled further north, toward the Turkey border, since conflict increased in December 2019. Many are living in extreme cold and out-of-doors as schools and hospitals are targeted with bombardment.
  • July: The first case of COVID-19 is reported in Idlib, raising fears of an outbreak among internally displaced people. By August, tens of thousands of confirmed COVID-19 cases are reported in northwest Syria.
  • September: Two new COVID-19 cases are reported in Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, where more than 36,800 refugees live.
  • October: Continued fighting leads to more than 100,000 people being displaced along the Syria–Turkey border.
  • November 4: Attacks in Syria lead to the deaths of four children and two aid workers, staff from a local World Vision partner organization.

2021: Families face another year of conflict.

  • March 15: Now in its 11th year, the Syrian conflict has taken a massive toll, with 6.8 million refugees and asylum-seekers who’ve fled the country and another 6.9 million people displaced within Syria.

2022: Children continue to bear the brunt of sustained war.

  • May 10: The U.N. reports soaring humanitarian needs as food insecurity rises, with 12 million Syrians who go hungry every day. About 5.8 million children inside Syria need humanitarian aid, the highest number since the start of the crisis. At least 2.4 million children are out of school.

Chris Huber and Sevil Omer of World Vision’s staff in the U.S and World Vision staff in Lebanon and Jordan contributed to this article.

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