As a result of the Syrian civil war, there are now 3 million Syrian refugees registered in neighboring countries — an exodus that began in March 2011 and shows no sign of abating, the United Nations refugee agency said on Friday.
The record figure was 1 million refugees more than a year ago, and an additional 6.5 million are displaced within Syria, meaning that "almost half of all Syrians have now been forced to abandon their homes and flee for their lives," it said.
"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," António Guterres, U.N. high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR), said in a statement.
The vast majority of Syrian refugees are in neighboring countries, with the most in Lebanon (1.14 million), Turkey (815,000) and Jordan (608,000), the office of the UNHCR said. Some 215,000 refugees are in Iraq, with the rest in Egypt and other countries.
Host countries have faced a daunting task in taking in the refugees, and many have seen their institutions stretched to the breaking point. The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is one-quarter of the country’s pre-Syrian-civil-war population.
In addition, host governments estimate that hundreds of thousands of Syrians have sought sanctuary in their countries without formally registering, the agency said.
Increasing numbers of families arrive in a shocking state — exhausted, scared and with their savings depleted, it said. "Most have been on the run for a year or more, fleeing from village to village before taking the final decision to leave."
"There are worrying signs too that the journey out of Syria is becoming tougher, with many people forced to pay bribes at armed checkpoints proliferating along the borders. Refugees crossing the desert into eastern Jordan are being forced to pay smugglers hefty sums (ranging from $100 per person or more) to take them to safety," it added.
Syrians now constitute the world's largest refugee population under the care of the UNHCR, second only to refugees in the decades-old Palestinian crisis, which falls under the mandate of a separate U.N. agency, the UNRWA, it said.
A recent surge in fighting appears to be worsening an already desperate situation in Syria, the statement said. More than 191,000 people were killed in the first three years of Syria's civil war, a U.N. report said last week.
In another report, issued on Wednesday, U.N. human rights investigators accused Islamic State insurgents of committing war crimes, including amputations and public executions, in northern Syria, sometimes in the presence of children. The government of President Bashar al-Assad is dropping deadly barrel bombs on civilian areas, and Damascus is believed to have used chlorine gas in combating its enemies, they said.
Meanwhile, the United States is pushing to build an international campaign against Islamic State jihadist fighters in Iraq and Syria, including partners for potential military action, White House officials said on Thursday.
The UNHCR report said some areas of Syria were emptying out as the front lines in the conflict shifted. "Recent arrivals to Jordan, for example, are running from attacks in the areas of al-Raqqa and Aleppo" in northern Syria, the UNHCR office said.
The agency voiced deep concern at the fate of several hundred Syrians trapped in Al Obaidy refugee camp in Al Qa'im, Iraq, after U.N. agencies and foreign aid workers were forced to abandon their offices and warehouses because of violence.
Al Jazeera and Reuters