THE civil war in Syria has forced three million people out of the country – more than a million of them in the past year – creating a crisis that the United Nations refugee agency said requires the biggest relief operation in its 64-year history.
The tragic milestone means about one in every eight Syrians has fled across the border, and 6.5 million others have been displaced within the country since the conflict began in March 2011, the Geneva-based agency said. Syria had a pre-war population of 23 million.
More than half of those uprooted are children.
Syrians desperate to leave their war-torn homeland are being forced to pay hefty bribes at armed checkpoints along Syria’s borders, or to smugglers, the UN agency added.
“The Syrian crisis has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era, yet the world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them,” Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said.
Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, who is a UNHCR special envoy, said: “Three million refugees is not just another statistic. It is a searing indictment of our collective failure to end the war in Syria.”
Most Syrian refugees remain in neighbouring countries, with the highest concentrations in Lebanon (1.17 million), Turkey (830,000) and Jordan (613,000), the UNHCR said.
Some 215,000 refugees fled to Iraq, with the rest in Egypt and other countries. Syrians have been among migrants who have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, Jolie said.
In addition, the host governments estimate that hundreds of thousands more Syrians have sought sanctuary in their countries without formally registering, the agency said.
But there are worrying signs the journey out of Syria is becoming tougher for desperate families, the UNHCR warned.
Some areas of Syria were emptying out as the front lines in the conflict shift. “Recent arrivals to Jordan, for example, are running from attacks in the areas of Raqqa and Aleppo,” the UNHCR said, referring to northern areas of Syria controlled by Islamic State (IS) forces.
UNHCR chief spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said: “In Iraq, the border is closed, it was closed some time ago in Anbar province and actually now it’s no longer controlled by the government of Iraq.”
The border in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region has been closed for some time except for Syrians returning to Syria, Ms Fleming said. “And in fact about 300 Syrians are actually returning to Syria every day. So this gives you a picture of the situation when you actually decide to return to Syria, or to flee to Syria, as some Iraqis have, things must be pretty bad in Iraq.”
IS fighters have swept through western and northern Iraq this year, causing alarm in Baghdad and drawing the first United States military air strikes since American forces withdrew in 2011.
The Obama administration is pushing to build an international campaign against IS in Iraq and Syria, including seeking partners for potential joint military action, White House officials said on Thursday
Increasing numbers of Syrian families arrive in neighbouring countries in a shocking state, exhausted, scared and with their savings depleted, Ms Fleming said. “Many have been on the run for a year or more,” she said.
“There have been cases of people who have been internally displaced inside the country moving from village to village, up to as many as 20 times, before they finally made it across an international border.”