From the Field

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

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.

“As we enter the eighth year of this ruinous war in Syria, it is harrowing to hear of the alleged attacks in Douma,” Syria Response Director Wynn Flaten said in an April 12 statement. “It is utterly heartbreaking to see the constant calls from humanitarian organizations to put an end to the violence, suffering, and devastation of Syrian people, go unnoticed.”

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 the people affected by the terrible results are children.

Now the United Nations and residents of Idlib fear an imminent military bombardment as the government appears to be preparing for a final and decisive battle against opposition forces. In 2018, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled fighting in other areas to the relative safety of the northwestern region.

On Sept. 7, World Vision and other international aid agencies called on world powers to avert the escalation of violence in Idlib.

“It will be the most vulnerable who will pay the heaviest price, with women, children, and the elderly in Idlib unlikely to be able to move to safety,” the agencies said in the joint statement. “Healthcare facilities, schools, water sources and other vital infrastructure in Idlib have already sustained heavy damage in this conflict and pushed aid staffers to work in difficult circumstances. Additional airstrikes and bombings will push already stretched humanitarian resources to the brink.”

Help refugee children and families fleeing violence.

History of the Syrian refugee crisis

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

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.

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 the 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.
  • As a large-scale military confrontation looms in early September in the northwestern region of Idlib, the U.N., World Vision, and other aid agencies fear as many as 700,000 Syrians could be forced to flee their homes because of the violence.



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?

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.


Why is there a Syrian civil war?

There is a civil war in Syria because 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 leaving their homes?

Syrians are leaving 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?

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. Around 10 percent are taking the dangerous journey to Europe. (©2015 World Vision)

The majority of Syria’s 5.6 million refugees have fled — by land and sea — across borders to neighboring countries but remain in the Middle East.

  • 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 — 670,000 Syrian refugees are in Jordan. Some 126,000 live in refugee camps, including Za’atari and Azraq, where aid groups have converted desert wastes into cities.
  • Iraq — 249,000 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 — 130,000 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.

For many Syrian children, all they have ever 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.

  • 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



World Vision’s work helping Syrian refugees

World Vision has 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 as 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, lead 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.
  • Between October 2016 and September 2017, we reach 2.2 million people in the region.
  • In 2018, World Vision distributes hygiene supplies to newly-displaced families in Idlib and A’zaz, Syria, including those escaping attacks in Eastern Ghouta.


Chris Huber, Kathryn Reid, and Denise C. Koenig 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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