Editor's note: This article was originally published August 13, 2013; it was updated October 13, 2016 to reflect the latest information.
Syria’s civil war is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. Half the country’s pre-war population — more than 11 million people — have been killed or forced to flee their homes.
Families are struggling to survive inside Syria, or make a new home in neighboring countries. Others are risking their lives on the way to Europe, hoping to find acceptance and opportunity. And harsh winters and hot summers make life as a refugee even more difficult. At times, the effects of the conflict can seem overwhelming.
But one fact is simple: millions of Syrians need our help. According to the U.N., it will take $7.7 billion to meet the urgent needs of the most vulnerable Syrians in 2016.
You can help. The more you know about the crisis, the more we can do together to help those in need. The lifesaving work we do, empowering people to survive through crisis and build better lives, is only possible with your knowledge and support.
So take a few minutes to understand the magnitude of this crisis. Read below to learn the facts behind the figures — and find out how you can help.
When did the crisis start?
Anti-government demonstrations began in March of 2011, part of the Arab Spring. But the peaceful protests quickly escalated after the government's violent crackdown, and armed opposition groups began fighting back.
By July, army defectors had loosely organized the Free Syrian Army and many civilian Syrians took up arms to join the opposition. Divisions between secular and religious fighters, and between ethnic groups, continue to complicate the politics of the conflict.
What is happening to Syrians caught in the war?
More than five years after it began, the war has killed over 250,000 people, half of whom are believed to be civilians. Bombings are destroying crowded cities and horrific human rights violations are widespread. Basic necessities like food and medical care are sparse.
The U.N. estimates that 6.1 million people are internally displaced. When you also consider refugees, well over half of the country’s pre-war population of 22 million is in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, whether they still remain in the country or have escaped across the borders.
The situation in Syria went from bad to worse when outside parties began launching airstrikes in the fall of 2015. Each time bombing intensifies, our teams on the ground see an increase in the number of civilian casualties and families forced to leave their homes in search of safety.
In early February 2016, fighting around Aleppo City intensified. With roads into the city closed by conflict, Mercy Corps has not been able to resupply humanitarian aid to the people who depend on us. We are worried about how civilians will get food and other essentials.
The ability to provide lifesaving aid throughout the region is severely jeopardized as Mercy Corps balances the urgent need to both protect valuable supplies for unforeseen emergencies and ramp up distributions to those in need. We are stocking up supplies in areas where civilians may be cut off and strategically repositioning our staff.
Where are they fleeing to?
Many Syrian refugees are living in Jordan and Lebanon, where Mercy Corps has been addressing their needs since 2012. In the region’s two smallest countries, weak infrastructure and limited resources are nearing a breaking point under the strain.
In August 2013, more Syrians escaped into northern Iraq at a newly-opened border crossing. Now they are trapped by that country's own internal conflict, and Iraq is struggling to meet the needs of Syrian refugees on top of more than 1 million internally displaced Iraqis — efforts that we are working to support.
An increasing number of Syrian refugees are fleeing across the border into Turkey, overwhelming urban host communities and creating new cultural tensions. Mercy Corps is working in these areas as well to help families meet their urgent needs and build peaceful communities.
Many Syrians are also deciding they are better off starting over in Europe, attempting the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey to Greece. Not all of them make it across alive. Those who do make it still face steep challenges — resources are strained, services are minimal and much of the route into western Europe has been closed.
How are people escaping?
Thousands of Syrians flee their country every day. They often decide to finally escape after seeing their neighborhoods bombed or family members killed.
The risks on the journey to the border can be as high as staying: Families walk for miles through the night to avoid being shot at by snipers or being caught by warring parties who will kidnap young men to fight for their cause.
How many refugees are there?
According to the U.N., about 11 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes - enough people to fill roughly 200 Yankee Stadiums. This includes about 4.8 million refugees who have been forced to seek safety in neighboring countries.
Every year of the conflict has seen an exponential growth in refugees. In July 2012, there were 100,000 refugees. One year later, there were 1.5 million. That tripled by the end of 2015.
There are now 4.8 million Syrians scattered throughout the region, making them the world's largest refugee population under the United Nations' mandate. It's the worst exodus since the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago.
Do all refugees live in camps?
The short answer: no. The U.N. estimates that only 1 in 10 Syrian refugees live in camps. The rest are struggling to settle in unfamiliar urban communities or have been forced into informal rural environments.
Jordan’s Za'atari, the first official refugee camp that opened in July 2012, gets the most news coverage because it is the destination for newly-arrived refugees. It is also the most concentrated settlement of refugees: Approximately 80,000 Syrians live in Za'atari, making it one of the country’s largest cities.
The formerly barren desert is crowded with acres of white tents, makeshift shops line a “main street” and sports fields and schools are available for children.
Azraq, a camp opened in April 2014, is carefully designed to provide a sense of community and security, with steel caravans instead of tents, a camp supermarket, and organized "streets" and "villages."
Because Jordan’s camps are run by the government and the U.N. — with many partner organizations like Mercy Corps coordinating services — they offer more structure and support. But many families feel trapped, crowded, and even farther from any sense of home, so they seek shelter in nearby towns.
Iraq has set up a few camps to house the influx of refugees who arrived in 2013, but the majority of families are living in urban areas. And in Lebanon, the government has no official camps for refugees, so families establish makeshift camps or find shelter in derelict, abandoned buildings. In Turkey, the majority of refugees are trying to survive and find work, despite the language barrier, in urban communities.
What conditions are refugees facing outside camps?
Some Syrians know people in neighboring countries who they can stay with. But many host families were already struggling on meager incomes and do not have the room or finances to help as the crisis drags on.
Refugees find shelter wherever they can. Our teams have seen families living in rooms with no heat or running water, in abandoned chicken coops and in storage sheds.
Most refugees must find a way to pay rent, even for derelict structures. Without any legal way to work in Jordan and Lebanon, they struggle to find odd jobs and accept low wages that often don’t cover their most basic needs. The situation is slightly better in the Kurdish Autonomous region of northern Iraq, where Syrian Kurds can legally work, but opportunities are now limited because of the conflict there. And language is still a barrier.
The lack of clean water and sanitation in crowded, makeshift settlements is an urgent concern. Diseases like cholera and polio can easily spread — even more life-threatening without enough medical services. In some areas with the largest refugee populations, water shortages have reached emergency levels; the supply is as low as 30 liters per person per day — one-tenth of what the average American uses.
The youngest refugees face an uncertain future. Some schools have been able to divide the school day into two shifts and make room for more Syrian students. But there is simply not enough space for all the children, and many families cannot afford the transportation to get their kids to school.
How many refugees are children?
According to the U.N., more than half of all Syrian refugees — roughly 2.5 million — are under the age of 18. Most have been out of school for months, if not years. About 35,000 school buses would be needed to drive every young refugee back to Syria.
The youngest are confused and scared by their experiences, lacking the sense of safety and home they need. The older children are forced to grow up too fast, finding work and taking care of their family in desperate circumstances.
One demographic that is largely overlooked is adolescents. Through Mercy Corps’ extensive work in and around Syria, we continuously witness young adults and adolescents in crisis.
The consequence of forgetting the unique needs of this next generation is they will become adults who are ill-equipped to mend torn social fabric and rebuild broken economies. Investing in adolescents now will yield dividends for decades to come for the peace and productivity so desperately needed in Syria and the region.
Is there enough assistance to reach everyone?
With no peace in sight, Mercy Corps and other humanitarian organizations are struggling just to keep up with needs that continue to grow exponentially. U.N. appeals have been significantly underfunded every single year since the start of the crisis.
During 2016, the U.N. predicts $7.7 billion is required to provide emergency support and stabilization to families throughout the region. As of October, less than half of this appeal has been funded.
It’s essential that, in addition to funding emergency assistance, the U.N. and donor governments fund long-term programs that address the underlying causes of the conflict, build resilience and promote peaceful communities.
What can we do to help?
Mercy Corps is working hard to relieve the intense suffering of civilians inside Syria, as well as that of refugees seeking safety in neighboring countries.
Today, we have team members in eight countries helping some 2.5 million people affected by the crisis. We also have one of the largest humanitarian operations inside Syria, reaching about 470,000 people per month.
We are delivering food and clean water, improving shelters and providing families with clothing, mattresses and other household essentials. We are helping children cope with extreme stress and leading constructive activities to nurture their healthy development. And we are focused on helping host communities and refugees work together to mitigate tensions and find solutions to limited resources.
We’ve worked in the region for 20 years and are committed to helping Syrians and the countries hosting them for as long as it takes. But as the number of those in need keeps increasing, your support will allow us do even more. Here’s how you can make a difference for Syrian refugees:
- Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide even more food, water, shelter and support to Syrian families and families in crisis around the world.
- Tell your friends. Share this story or go to our Facebook page to post the infographic and spread the word about the millions who need us.
- Start a campaign. You can turn knowledge into action by setting up a personal fundraising page and asking your friends and family to contribute to our efforts to help Syrians fleeing the war.
- Sign a petition. Tell congress that we must continue to support Syrian refugees. Add your name to the list to stand in support with refugees.