From the Field

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

Now in its 11th year, the Syrian refugee crisis remains the world’s largest refugee and displacement crisis of our time. 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.

About 6.8 million Syrians are refugees and asylum-seekers, and another 6.7 million people are displaced within Syria. This means 13.5 million Syrians in total are forcibly displaced, more than half of the country’s population. Nearly 11.1 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance. And about 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 severed the social and business ties that bound neighbors to their community.

 

Continued conflict has created economic despair. “On top of the strain on families’ ability to secure basic food rations and household items, the economic impact of the war continues to drive serious child protection concerns, including negative impacts on education,” says Barrett Alexander, a senior policy advisor for World Vision. “Parents are forced to remove children from school due to the inability to pay fees, and teachers are not receiving their salaries. Some children go to schools in the displacement camps but arrive covered in mud, having walked miles upon miles to attend. Many girls who drop out of school are severely impacted by child marriage.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated the poverty and joblessness faced by refugees. At least 1.1 million Syrian refugees and displaced people in Syria have been driven into poverty as a result of the pandemic, according to a December 2020 report by the World Bank Group and the U.N. Refugee Agency.

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?

All that many Syrian children have ever known is 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.

  • 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’s limited knowledge of civilians’ needs.
  • More than 80% of Syrians live in extreme poverty, on less than $1.90 a day.
  • With hundreds of thousands of people displaced in 2020 in northern Syria, aid groups are struggling to meet their needs for shelter, access to clean water, and food.

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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. It’s also a protracted emergency, which is ongoing for five years or more.

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How many Syrians are forcibly displaced?

About 13.5 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, but not yet been granted it.) The rest, 6.7 million people, remain in Syria but are displaced from their homes. That means they’re internally displaced.

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How can I help Syrian refugees?

Syrians 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.
  • Learn more: Read Forced to flee: Top countries refugees are coming from to find out more about the lives of 82.4 million people around the world who have been forcibly displaced.

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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 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 very dangerous place. Experts define some of these dangerous places as fragile contexts.

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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, over 606,000 people have been killed, including more than 25,000 children, reports the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The war has become deadlier since foreign powers joined the conflict.
  • Collapsed infrastructure: Within Syria, only 53% of hospitals and 51% of healthcare facilities are fully functional, and more than 8 million people lack access to safe water. An estimated 2.4 million children are out of school. Conflict has shattered the economy, and more than 80% 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.

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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)

Where are Syrian refugees going?

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

  • Turkey — Nearly 3.7 million Syrian refugees are in Turkey, the largest refugee population worldwide. About 90% of Syrians in Turkey live outside of refugee camps and have limited access to basic services.
  • Lebanon — 855,000 Syrian refugees make up about one-eighth 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 — 668,000 Syrian refugees are in Jordan. Some 120,000 people live in Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps, where aid groups have converted desert wastes into cities.
  • Iraq — 247,000 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 — 132,000 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 December 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 opportunity to come to the U.S.

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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 to use as fighters or 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 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 two decades of educational progress. One in three school-aged children are not in school. Many classes are suspended because buildings were damaged or destroyed, or are occupied by military groups or displaced people.

 

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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, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq, which has also suffered from conflict and humanitarian crises. Since the Syrian refugee crisis began, we’ve helped more than 6.5 million children and their families in the region.

  • Syria: Healthcare; emergency food; clean water, improved sanitation, and promotion of safe hygiene; shelter repair kits; and Child-Friendly Spaces and child protection training
  • 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
  • Iraq: Food aid, health services, clean water and improved sanitation, livelihoods training; for children — education, recreation, and programs in life skills, peacebuilding, and resilience

From October 2018 to November 2020, World Vision led the Facilitating Assistance to Syria Together (FAST), a consortium of humanitarian aid partners and local organizations, in its goals 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 brought aid to 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)

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.

  • 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 6.7 million people displaced within Syria.

 

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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