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. Now in its 10th year, the Syrian refugee crisis is the largest refugee and displacement crisis of our time.

About 5.6 million Syrians are refugees, and another 6.2 million people are displaced within Syria. Nearly 12 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance. At least half of the people affected by the Syrian refugee crisis are children.

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.

The civil war has become a sectarian conflict, with religious groups opposing each other, which affects the whole region and is heavily influenced by international interventions.


News as of Feb. 20, 2020: Some 900,000 people in northwest Syria have been displaced by conflict since Dec. 1, 2019. As attacks move further north in Idlib, people are increasingly squeezed into a small area near the closed border with Turkey, which was already hosting hundreds of thousands of displaced people. Children make up more than 60% of those who’ve been driven from shelter.

Indiscriminate bombing has destroyed roads, schools, and hospitals. Extreme cold is making life even harder, especially for children. “Children are sleeping in flooded fields with no running water or proper protection from the elements. We’ve provided blankets, heaters, and cash, but people have no money to buy fuel and have told us that they are now burning clothes and trash to keep warm,” says World Vision International President Andrew Morley.

Help refugee children and families fleeing violence.

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

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

Fast facts: What is happening in Syria?

For many Syrian children, all they have known is war. Their 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.

  • Syria’s army has been regaining territory since late 2015. Only governorates in the northeast and northwest remain outside government control.
  • Humanitarian groups are unable to access many conflict areas, so there is limited knowledge of civilians’ needs.
  • As many as 70% of Syrians live in extreme poverty, on less than $1.90 a day.
  • With hundreds of thousands of people newly displaced in northern Syria, aid groups are struggling to meet their needs for shelter, clothing, and heat.


What is the Syrian refugee crisis?

The Syrian refugee crisis refers to the humanitarian emergency resulting from the Syrian civil war that 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. The Syrian refugee crisis is the largest refugee and displacement crisis of our time, affecting about 17.6 million people people and spilling into surrounding countries. Now in its 10th year, it is considered a protracted crisis, which is an ongoing complex crisis of five years or more.


How many Syrian refugees are there?

There are about 5.6 million Syrian refugees, and another 6.2 million people are displaced within Syria. Nearly 12 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance. At least half of the people affected by the Syrian refugee crisis are children.


How can I help Syrian refugees?

Syrians fleeing conflict in their country 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.

You can help Syrian refugees by praying for them, using your gifts 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: Become a vital partner in World Vision’s work to help refugee children and families.
  • Learn more: Read Forced to flee: Top countries refugees are coming from to find out more about the lives of 70.8 million people around the world who have been forcibly displaced.


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. 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 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 millions of Syrian children and families as government forces and militant groups fight to take and rule territory, 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 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 500,000 people have been killed, including more than 55,000 children, reports the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The war has become deadlier since foreign powers joined the conflict.
  • Collapsed infrastructure: Within Syria, 95% of people lack adequate healthcare and 70% lack regular access to clean water. Half the children are out of school. Conflict has shattered the economy, and 80% of the population now 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.


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)

Where are Syrian refugees going?

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 — 3.6 million Syrian refugees are in Turkey. About 90% of Syrian refugees in Turkey live outside of refugee camps and have limited access to basic services.
  • Lebanon — 915,000 Syrian refugees make up about one-sixth 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 — 656,000 Syrian refugees are in Jordan. Some 120,000 live in refugee camps, including Za’atari and Azraq, where aid groups have converted desert wastes into cities.
  • Iraq — 250,000 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 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?

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 had to leave school.

Here are some specific ways the Syrian civil war is affecting children:

  • 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: Syrian children are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation in the unfamiliar and overcrowded conditions found in refuge 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.
  • Lack of education opportunities: About 40% of Syrian refugee children are out of school. In Syria, the war reversed two decades of educational progress. One-third of schools are not having classes because they have been damaged, destroyed, or occupied by military groups or displaced people.

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 refugee crisis began, we have helped more than 2.5 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 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 disasters — 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.


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 brought aid to more than 2,000 people within three days of the Jan. 6 storm that brought rain, snow, and flooding. (©2019 World Vision/photo by George Mghames)

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 repression.

  • Lebanon becomes a major destination for Syrian refugees. Many hope they’ll return home soon.
  • World Vision and other aid groups help Syrian refugees in Lebanon with basic needs.
  • 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.

  • World Vision builds water and sanitation infrastructure to meet the needs up to 30,000 people at Azraq refugee camp.
  • April: Azraq refugee camp opens in Jordan; Lebanon hosts 1 million refugees, an estimated one-quarter 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 devastate 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 Deir ez-Zor city. The Syrian civil war has displaced more than 900,000 Syrians this year.
  • Between October 2016 and September 2017, 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 nonformal 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 newly-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 persons 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 school and hospitals are targeted with bombardment.
  • March 15: Syria enters the 10th year of the Syrian civil war and resulting Syrian refugee crisis.


Chris Huber 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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