Quick facts: What you need to know about the Syria crisis

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  • Ali, his wife Marwa and their 3 month-old daughter Farah, inside the tent where they are staying temporarily. PHOTO: Mercy Corps team


The Syrian conflict has created one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. Over half of the country’s pre-war population — more than 12 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., $4.6 billion was required to meet the urgent needs of the most vulnerable Syrians in 2017 — but only a little more than half was received.

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.

Sign a petition: Tell Congress to support aid for refugees ▸

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 in Syria start?

Anti-government demonstrations began in March of 2011, as 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?

The war has killed hundreds of thousands of people in the eight years since it began. Crowded cities have been destroyed and horrific human rights violations are widespread. Basic necessities like food and medical care are sparse.

The U.N. estimates that 6.2 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.

LEARN MORE: Syrian youth have lost years of their lives to war, but not their resolve ▸

The situation in Syria went from bad to worse when outside parties became involved in the conflict in the fall of 2015. As conflict intensifies, our teams on the ground have seen an increase in humanitarian needs and families forced to leave their homes in search of safety.


Learn more about what's happening in this Q&A ▸

How will Trump’s Syria announcement affect Syrian people?

On December 19, 2018, U.S. President Trump ordered the rapid withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria. Our work currently reaches approximately 42,000 people every month in this part of Syria. Our program teams are planning and preparing for all kinds of scenarios but even so, much remains unknown.

Any time there are changes in a conflict environment where we work, we watch to see how those changes may affect our ability to get help to those that need it. We are concerned about the future security and stability of northeast Syria, at a time when there are significant threats of violence and political solutions have failed. Many governments and armed groups remain active in this part of Syria, and neighboring communities such as Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, may witness increased military activity or offensives.

Our primary concern is the 1.3 million people in need in northeast Syria, including approximately 400,000 internally displaced persons. Limited opportunities mean that many Syrians still depend on food and water assistance provided by humanitarian actors (both in displacement camps and outside). This assistance requires functioning and unfettered humanitarian access. Without it, their situation will become even more dire. 

This is a complex war environment but Mercy Corps has a responsibility to deliver humanitarian aid safely and impartially to displaced and vulnerable civilians who are victims of the conflict. That is what we do.

What is happening in Idlib, Syria?

We are gravely concerned, as the truce that held for so long in Syria's Idlib province appears to be dissolving. More than 150,000 people are on the move, fleeing the week-long bombardment in search of safety. Idlib is home to more than a million people — one-third of the total population — who have already been displaced multiple times.

The majority of civilians in Idlib are now trapped because most of the main crossing points in and out of Idlib have been closed.

Violence appears to be increasing. At least seven hospitals and nine schools have been struck since the end of April, according to the United Nations. The UN also reports that more than 300 civilians have lost their lives in the last three months, 60 of them in April alone.

Mercy Corps partners and team members are rushing to aid those who are fleeing violence — we're responding with 'new arrival kits', which include essential kitchen, household and hygiene items for families who have had to leave their houses at very short notice, and were unable to pack all the essentials.

Trained aid workers are looking to identify any cases where people may need additional assistance. We support them with psychological first aid, providing information where we can and referring some to specialist providers where possible.

Where are Syrians fleeing to?

More than 6.2 million people have fled their homes and remain displaced within Syria. Some 1.8 million of whom were newly displaced in 2017 — approximately 6,550 people displaced each day. They live in informal settlements, crowded in with extended family or sheltering in damaged or abandoned buildings. Some people survived the horrors of multiple displacements, besiegement, hunger and disease and fled to areas where they thought they would be safe, only to find themselves caught up in the crossfire once again. Across northern Syria, we are seeing that 20-60 percent of the population is made up of people who have had to flee their homes — many of them more than once.

More than 1.6 million 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 2 million internally displaced Iraqis — efforts that we are working to support.

More than 3.5 million Syrian refugees have fled across the border into Turkey, overwhelming urban host communities and creating new cultural tensions.

How are Syrians escaping conflict?

Thousands of Syrians get displaced within their country every day. They often decide to finally escape after seeing their neighborhoods attacked or family members killed.

For many of those searching for safer, more stable places to live, families will often have to leave most of their belongings behind. They might have to travel for miles, uncertain of where they might find their next meal.

How many Syrian refugees are there?

According to the U.N., more than 12 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes — enough people to fill roughly 221 Yankee Stadiums. This includes about 5.6 million refugees who have been forced to seek safety in neighboring countries, out of a total 6.3 million Syrian refugees worldwide — almost one-third of the world’s total refugee population.

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.

Today there are 5.6 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 24 years ago.

Do all refugees live in camps?

The short answer: no. Only about 8 percent of Syrian refugees live in camps. The majority are struggling to settle in unfamiliar urban communities or have been forced into informal rural environments.

Jordan’s Zaatari, 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 Zaatari, 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."

See what refugees brought with them from home ▸

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.

READ: One family's story in crowded Lebanon ▸

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 Syrian 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.

See photos: 8 important things Syrians have lost to war ▸

Refugees often land in host countries without all their identification, which has either been destroyed or left behind. Without the right documents in host countries, refugees can be evicted from housing, be unable to access medical care, education or most often, just be afraid to leave their homes. Without these documents, we see many refugees resort to negative coping strategies, including child labor, early marriage and engagement in unsafe work.


The lack of clean water and sanitation in crowded, makeshift settlements is an urgent concern. Diseases can easily spread — even more life-threatening without enough medical services. Reports indicate that as much as 35 percent of the population is currently relying on unsafe sources to meet daily water needs. In some areas with the largest refugee populations, water shortages have reached emergency levels; the supply has been as low as 22 liters per person per day — less than one-tenth of what the average American uses.

Read our report about the water shortage in Jordan: Tapped Out ▸

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 Syrian refugees are children?

According to the U.N., almost half of all Syrian refugees — roughly 2.7 million — are under the age of 18. Most have been out of school for months, if not years. About 37,500 school buses would be needed to drive every young refugee to school.

MORE: Syrian dad determined to keep refugee kids learning ▸

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.

See their art and photos: What it's like to grow up as a refugee ▸

Watch videos they made: Leaving home behind ▸

Is there enough assistance to reach everyone?

With no lasting 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 Syrian crisis.

According to the U.N., $4.6 billion was required in 2017 to provide emergency support and stabilization to families throughout the region — but just over half was received.

This year, $5.6 billion is required, and only 37 percent has been received.

What is Mercy Corps’ position on possible military action in Syria?

As humanitarians, Mercy Corps' work depends on our living our values of neutrality, impartiality and independence. We cannot speak to military action; instead what we can and must do is call the attention of the world to those innocent civilians in Syria who are caught in the crossfire and need our support.

Whatever decisions policymakers in Washington, DC, at the United Nations and around the world come to, we urge them to be mindful of their responsibility to take all possible measures to protect innocent civilians in times of war. And to allow us, as humanitarians, the access we need to do our lifesaving work.

Our Syrian teams and partners are in many cases risking their lives to provide support to the communities around them. They suffer alongside their neighbors as they are helping. We must do all we can to support them.

Mercy Corps works with refugees like Maram to find work that helps them meet their families’ immediate needs.

What can we do to help the people of Syria?

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, our team members are helping hundreds of thousands of people affected by the crisis each month.

We are delivering food and clean water, restoring sanitation systems, 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, while helping host communities and refugees work together to mitigate tensions and find solutions to limited resources. We are also supporting livelihood development through distribution of items like seeds and tools and facilitation of cash grants and business courses.

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.