Syria's ballooning refugee crisis: How bad will it get?

Record numbers of Syrian civilians, many of them children, are racing for the war-torn country's borders

Two Syrian children lay on a handmade swing in front of their tent at the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan on Sept. 2: The camp was originally built to hold 500 people. Now it has 26,000.
(Image credit: AP photo/Mohammad Hannon)

The flow of refugees out of Syria spiked to record levels in August, as civilians struggled to escape the government's escalating bombing campaign against rebel forces. But there aren't enough camps to take everyone in, and thousands of refugees have been forced to wait at border crossings before they can reach the safety of neighboring countries such as Turkey and Jordan. Meanwhile, tensions are rising in border regions, where residents fear being overwhelmed by the flood of people seeking asylum. Is there any relief in sight? Here, a brief guide:

How much is the Syrian exodus growing?

In August, 103,416 refugees fled Syria seeking asylum, the highest monthly total since the country's uprising began in March 2011, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The August rush almost doubled the total number of refugees, which now stands at 235,300, in just a single month. "If you do the math, it's quite an astonishing number," says Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency. And that figure only reflects the people who have registered, meaning the actual numbers might be far higher.

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Where are all of these people going?

Turkey, Syria's neighbor to the north, says it has let in 80,000 Syrians, with another 8,000 caught in a bottleneck at the border. Jordan, to the south, says that as many as 183,000 Syrians have crossed the border since the uprising began, with 1,000 more now arriving each day. Another 500 a day are going east into Iraq — up from about 500 per week in early August. Smaller numbers are going to Lebanon, which borders southwestern Syria. And meanwhile, another 1.5 million Syrians have fled their homes but remained inside Syria — meaning 8 percent of the country's entire population is on the move.

Do Syria's neighbors have room for all the refugees?

No. There aren't enough refugee camps to accommodate anything close to the number of refugees now leaving Syria. The camps that are up and running are already full and plagued by harsh conditions. Hundreds of refugees rioted last month to protest conditions at the Zataari camp in the north Jordan desert, which is hammered by frequent dust storms. The Jordanian government opened the camp in July to house 500 people, but it now has 26,000 refugees — two-thirds of them children. Construction at Zataari is constant, but officials there still can't expand fast enough to keep up with new arrivals.

Why the sudden rush to flee Syria?

Government forces launched punishing counteroffensives in August, trying to regain ground that rebels had taken the month before. Urban battles in Damascus, the capital, and aerial bombing of the northern city of Aleppo, among other places, drove more and more people from their homes. The number of deaths went from 1,344 in May to 2,336 in June, 3,643 in July, and then reached a record 5,400 people — about 4,100 of them civilians — in August. "There were planes in the sky, they were shelling our house, they were shooting directly at the children," one woman said after reaching Jordan. "We did not bring anything except the clothes on our bodies."

Who are the people who are fleeing?

They come from all walks of life. In Aleppo, whole families have died as bombs fell on civilian neighborhoods, sending columns of vehicles overflowing with refugees pouring out of the city headed to the Turkish border. In other parts of the country, entire communities have packed up and left. "They were shelling next to the houses, shelling the mountains — that's what made us leave," Fatih Nour al-Sellou, 59, a construction worker who fled with his family from northern Syria to Turkey. "Six or seven thousand people came here — we ran away from all the shelling. The whole mountain migrated."

What happens next?

Turkey is stepping up a push to establish a safe haven of protected camps within Syria, but that would require troops and so far only France is on board. Jordan is building another camp. The International Committee of the Red Cross has coaxed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into promising greater access for aid workers, although they won't be able to get near battle zones, where need is greatest. The war is in an apparent stalemate, and international efforts to push out Assad are being stymied by China and Russia, which vow to block efforts at the U.N. Security Council to use tighter sanctions or military force. That means aid workers just have to struggle to meet the demand with no end in sight. "We are all just keeping ahead of the tidal wave of tents," says UNICEF worker Pip Leighton at Zataari camp. "If we have another massive influx, we will have problems."

Sources: BBC News, Daily Mail, Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald, Telegraph

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