Editor's note: This article was originally published on August 13, 2013; the above map was updated on November 20, 2013 to reflect the increased number of Syrian refugees. Ongoing updates will be made to reflect changing numbers.
Syria’s civil war and resulting refugee crisis are poised to become the worst humanitarian disaster of our time. As it intensifies, the situation can sometimes feel too overwhelming to understand.
But one fact is simple: millions of Syrians need our help. And the more aware people are of what is going on, the more we can build a global response to reach them. Our lifesaving work is only possible with your knowledge and support.
So take a few minutes to understand the magnitude of the crisis. Scroll through the three infographics above to see the staggering statistics. Then 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 rebels began fighting back against the regime.
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 Islamist fighters, and between ethnic groups, continue to complicate the politics of the conflict.
What is happening to Syrians caught in the war?
Now in its third year, the full-blown civil war has killed over 100,000 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 UN estimates that over 4 million people are internally displaced and that almost 7 million are in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria. When you also consider refugees, nearly 40 percent of the country’s population of 22 million is suffering, whether they still remain in the country or have escaped across the borders.
How are people escaping?
An average of 6,000 Syrians now 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 soldiers who will kidnap young men to fight for the regime.
How many refugees are there?
Over 2 million Syrians have registered with the United Nations High Commission of Refugees, who is leading the regional emergency response. But hundreds of thousands more await registration.
Every year of the conflict has seen an exponential growth in refugees. Just one year ago, there were 100,000 refugees. By this past April, there were 800,000. That doubled to 1.6 million in less than four months.
At this rate, the UN predicts there will be 3.5 million Syrian refugees by the end of the year — the worst exodus since the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago.
Where are they fleeing to?
The majority of 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.
Since August, more Syrians have escaped into northern Iraq at a newly opened border crossing. In a country that is still recovering from its own prolonged conflict, this influx is dramatic and brings additional challenges. Mercy Corps recently began working in this region as well to help families meet their basic needs and find work.
Do all refugees live in camps?
The short answer: no.
Jordan’s Zaatari, the first official refugee camp that opened one year ago, gets most news coverage because it is the destination for newly arrived refugees. It is also the most concentrated settlement of refugees: At least 120,000 Syrians now live in Zaatari, making it the country’s fourth largest city. The formerly barren desert is crowded with acres of white tents, makeshift shops line a “main street,” and schools have been opened.
Because Jordan’s camps are run by the government and the UN — 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 have arrived in the last three months, but the majority of families are living in urban areas. And in Lebanon, the government has no camps for refugees.
The fact is, the majority of refugees — about 70 percent — live outside camps.
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 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 language is still a barrier.
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 UN, more than half of all Syrian refugees are under the age of 18. Most have been out of school for months, if not years. 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.
Is there enough assistance to reach everyone?
In June, the UN issued its largest ever appeal — according to their estimates, $5 billion is necessary to meet the needs of all those affected by the crisis, both within and outside Syria.
Yet, only $1.1 billion has been pledged thus far. That’s just 22 percent of what is needed. Learn more about about funding and other data included here from the UNHCR.
Many humanitarian organizations, including Mercy Corps, are partnering with the UN, using both private contributions and funding from the international community to actively address the needs of Syrian refugees. But so much more must be done.
What can we do to help?
Mercy Corps is currently reaching nearly 2 million people affected by the crisis with critical support.
We are delivering clean water, improving shelters and providing families with clothes, mattresses and other household essentials. We are helping children cope with trauma and leading constructive activities to nurture their healthy development. And we are focused on helping host communities and refugees work together to 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. In the coming months, we’ll prepare families for winter, begin work on new water systems and expand our work with children to new camps and communities.
- Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide even more water, shelter and support to families who've fled Syria.
- Tell your friends. Share this story or go to our Facebook page to post the infographic and spread the word about the families 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 Syrian refugees.
- Stay informed. Read more stories about our work and those we are helping on our Syrian refugee crisis response page. You can also learn more about our focus on protecting Syria’s children.