Syrian Refugee Crisis: facts and how to help

Updated Jul 17, 2023
15-minute read

Since 2011, conflict has devastated Syria. Now the Syrian refugee crisis is recognized internationally, as the largest refugee crisis of our time. The Syrian civil war has set Syria’s national standard of living back by decades – destroying health care systems, schools and water and sanitation facilities.

Hundreds of thousands of people have died, more than 6.8 million Syrians have fled the country as refugees and another 6.9 million Syrians, including 2.6 million children, are displaced within the country. Syrian people have witnessed atrocious forms of violence over the years, and Syrian children especially have been negatively affected by the war.

Explore facts about the Syrian refugee crisis and learn how you can help Syrian refugees.

  1. What is happening in Syria?
  2. How did the Syrian civil war start?
  3. Why are Syrians fleeing their homes?
  4. Where are Syrian refugees going?
  5. How is the Syrian civil war affecting children?
  6. What do Syrian refugees need?
  7. How is World Vision responding to the Syrian refugee crisis?  
  8. How can I help Syrian refugees?

Support Syrian Children and Families

What is happening in Syria?

  • Syria’s civil war has been ongoing since 2011. The fighting is happening between soldiers who support the president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, and rebel fighters who no longer want Assad in power.
  • The city of Raqqa, ISIL’s former stronghold in Syria, was retaken by a coalition of fighters supported by the United States in October 2017.
  • World Vision’s work in northern Syria benefits many people who fled Aleppo during intense fighting in late 2016. Before the civil war, Aleppo was a financial and industrial centre and Syria’s largest city; it also contained a large population of Christians. Now it is reduced to the second-largest city in Syria and recognized as the worst-hit during Syria’s civil war.
  • 13.1 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance as a result of the civil war that began in 2011.
  • The most recognizable stories from the Syrian refugee crisis so far have been that of 2-year-old Alan Kurdi and 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh.

How did the Syrian civil war start?

On March 15, 2011, protestors calling for government reform took to the streets of southern Syria, after teenagers accused of painting revolutionary slogans on a school wall were arrested and tortured. As the pro-democracy movement spread through the country, it was met with strong government crackdowns and increasing violence on both sides.

Apartment buildings ruins in Aleppo, Syria.

This apartment building in Aleppo, Syria was once home to families. Now it lays in ruins. Photo: Chris Weeks

By the following year, Syria was embroiled in a civil war, and the Syrian military was opposing a growing number of militant groups. Conflict has torn apart the lives of Syrian children and families as government forces and militant groups fight to take rule and territory.

The country’s weakened governance, as well as the destruction of its social services and institutions make Syria a textbook case of a fragile state.

Why are Syrians fleeing their homes?

Syrian people are forced to flee from their homes when life becomes unbearable. These are some of the top reasons they cite:

Violence: Since the Syrian civil war began, approximately 503,064 people have been killed, including about 162,390 children, reports The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). The war has become deadlier since foreign powers joined the conflict.

Collapsed infrastructure: Within Syria, 95 per cent of people lack adequate healthcare, 70 per cent lack regular access to clean water. Half the children are out of school. The economy is shattered and four-fifths of the population lives in poverty.

Children in danger and distress: Syrian children — the nation’s hope for a better future — have lost loved ones, suffered injuries, missed years of schooling, and experienced unspeakable violence and brutality.

More than half of Syria’s population have fled their homes. About 6.8 million Syrians are refugees who’ve left the country. Another 6.9 million people who have left their homes are still in Syria — they are internally displaced persons, or IDPs.

With the help of World Vision donors, children like Shaima, a 12-year-old Syrian refugee girl, and her family find refuge and safety at the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan

Where are Syrian refugees going?

The Middle East: The majority of Syria’s refugees have fled – by land and sea – across borders to neighboring Middle Eastern countries seeking asylum.

  • 3.3 million Syrian refugees are currently in Turkey.
  • 805,000 Syrian refugees are currently in Lebanon.
  • 660,000 Syrian refugees are currently in Jordan.
  • 264,000 Syrian refugees are currently in Iraq.
  • 148,000 Syrian refugees are currently in Egypt.

Canada: Between 2015 and 2020,44,620 Syrian refugees arrived in Canada as part of the Government of Canada’s Syrian Refugee Resettlement initiative. According to the Government of Canada website, these efforts are ongoing: “Our missions overseas continue to process Syrian refugee cases as quickly as possible. As a result, Syrian refugees continue to arrive in Canada as part of our ongoing resettlement efforts.”

Europe: At the peak of the European migrant crisis in 2015, 1.3 million Syrians requested asylum in Europe. Since then, the number of new asylum seekers has declined significantly.

The United States: The United States admitted about 21,700 Syrian refugees between October 2011 and Dec. 31, 2016. In 2022, another 4,556 Syrian refugees had been admitted.

How is the Syrian civil war affecting children?

The civil war has stolen the childhood of millions of Syrian children and affected their long-term physical and mental health. Many children caught up in this crisis lost family members and friends to the violence and have suffered physical and psychological trauma. They’ve also had to leave school, decreasing their prospects for the future. Many Syrian refugee children end up working in dangerous or demeaning circumstances for little pay to support their families.

Five Syrian children under a tent with clothes hanging above them.

Syrian children living in an informal tented settlement in Lebanon. Photo: Maria Bou Chaaya

Other ways that children living in Syria and Syrian refugee children are affected:

  • Diseases and malnutrition: Children are susceptible to ailments brought on by poor sanitation, including diarrheal diseases like cholera. They may miss vaccinations and regular health checkups, especially in cut-off areas. In poor housing, cold weather increases the risk of pneumonia and other respiratory infections.
  • Child labour and child soldiers: Many Syrian refugee children have to work to support their families. Often, they work in dangerous or demeaning circumstances for little pay. Warring parties forcibly recruit children who serve as fighters, human shields and in support roles, according to the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report. According to UNICEF, nearly 10,000 Syrian children in refugee countries are either unaccompanied or separated, making them vulnerable to exploitation.
  • Child marriage and abuse: Children are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation in the unfamiliar and overcrowded conditions found in camps and informal tent settlements. Without adequate income to support their families and fearful of their daughters being molested, parents may opt to arrange a marriage for girls, some as young as 13. In 2016, rates of child marriage reached 20 percent in Lebanon and over 30 percent in Jordan.
  • Lack of education opportunities: Currently in Syria, there are over 2 million children (more than one-third of the country’s child population) out of school and 1.3 million children at risk of dropping out. More than 800,000 displaced children living in refugee countries are not attending school. In Syria, the war reversed two decades of educational progress. One-third of schools are not in use because they have been damaged, destroyed or occupied.

What do Syrian refugees need?

Syrians fleeing conflict often leave everything behind, so they need all the basics to sustain their lives: food, clothing, healthcare, shelter, and household and hygiene items. Refugees also need reliable supplies of clean water, as well as sanitation facilities. Children need a safe environment and a chance to play and go to school. Adults need employment options in cases of long-term displacement.

How is World Vision responding to the Syrian refugee crisis?

World Vision is responding to the Syrian refugee crisis by providing aid to children and families in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, as well as Iraq, which has also suffered from conflict and humanitarian crises. Since the Syria civil war began, we have helped more than 2.5 million people in the region - of those 1.3 million were children.

Syrian refugee children sit at school desks in a classroom set up in a refugee camp tent.

School at Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan run by World Vision staff. Photo: Alexander Whittle

Syria: Healthcare, hygiene support, water and sanitation, shelter repair kits, psychosocial support to women and children and winterization supplies.

Jordan and Lebanon: Personal and household supplies, clean water and sanitation, education and recreation, Child-Friendly Spaces and child protection training for adults, winter kits and psychosocial support to women and children.

Iraq: Food aid, health services, water and sanitation, baby kits, and winter supplies such as stoves; for children: education, recreation, and programs in life skills, peacebuilding and resilience.

Highlights of World Vision’s work with Syrian refugees between 2016 and 2022:

  • World Vision programs benefit refugees, internally displaced people, and locals in host communities in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. About 47,000 people received winter and household supplies.
  • In 2017, we helped nearly 15,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey. Working through partners, we provided access to legal services, protection, translation and nonformal education to help them cope in their new environment.
  • Between October 2016 and September 2017, we reached 2.2 million people in the region.
  • In 2018, World Vision distributed hygiene supplies to newly-displaced families in Idlib and A’zaz, Syria, including people escaping attacks in Eastern Ghouta.
  • In January and February 2019, World Vision provided aid in Syria and Lebanon to Syrians affected by flooding and cold.
  • Starting in April 2019, World Vision responded to the increased needs of children and families fleeing conflict in northern Syria.
  • Since September 2021, 5,738 Syrian people benefitted from the provision of food assistance through World Vision Canada.

How can I help Syrian refugees?

Donate: You may be wondering how to help those in need in the Syria crisis. While the conflict is complex, making a difference is not. You can donate to help provide life-saving resources to Syrian children and families.

You’ll also help provide: essentials like nutritious food, clean water, sanitation, shelter, basic household item; safe spaces where children can play and learn; medicine and health care; programs to prevent sexual violence and support survivors of abuse.

Contributors: Brian Jonson and Patricia Mouamar, World Vision staff in Lebanon and Jordan; Chris Huber, Kathryn Reid and Denise C. Koenig, World Vision U.S.; Alicia Dubay, Alison Ralph, Tatiana Almeida and Anita Latzoo, World Vision Canada