By the Numbers: Syrian Refugees Around the World

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Migrants and refugees from Syria and Iraq cross the Greek-Macedonian border near the town of Gevgelija on February 23, 2016. (ROBERT ATANASOVSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

November 19, 2019
by
Zoe Todd Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

When civil war first gripped Syria in 2011, the country had a population roughly equivalent to New York state. In the eight years since, the conflict has displaced more than half of its people, and created the largest refugee population in the world.

FRONTLINE explores the Syrian conflict in For Sama, through the lens of filmmaker Waad al-Kateab, who remained in Aleppo even as the city crumbled around her. Intense aerial bombing destroyed much of the city during the four-year battle for Aleppo, which ended in 2016 when government forces struck a ceasefire with rebels.

The fall of Aleppo coincided with a desperate exodus as millions of men, women and children fled the war. Though Syria accounts for less than one percent of the world’s population, its people make up nearly one third of refugees worldwide. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) last year recorded 6.7 million refugees from the Syrian Arab Republic, more than from any other country.

Almost as many Syrians – more than 6.1 million – have been displaced within their own country, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, which analyzes internal displacement data. Conflict and natural disasters uprooted another 819,000 Syrians within the first half of this year. Many have been forced to relocate multiple times.

Of those who have fled Syria, the overwhelming majority stayed in the Middle East. The rest have migrated largely to Europe, with a fraction also traveling to North America.

Middle East

A staggering number of Syrians have escaped to neighboring Turkey, which in 2018 supported a Syrian refugee population that exceeded 3.6 million people. Most settled in cities such as Istanbul, where they can find work. Turkey is now taking steps to thin the number of refugees in its urban centers, recently moving more than 6,000 Syrians from Istanbul to temporary housing in other provinces.

The swell of Syrians has pushed Turkey’s refugee population to become the largest in the world, according to the UNHCR. The agency is working with Turkey to begin voluntary repatriation of Syrian refugees, in addition to a controversial plan by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to send refugees to a borderland “safe zone.”

The small coastal nation of Lebanon supports the second-largest population of Syrian refugees. The UNHCR last year recorded nearly one million Syrians in Lebanon, which practically shares its eastern border with the Syrian capital Damascus, as well as Homs. As a result, in 2018, about one in six people in Lebanon were refugees — the highest density in the world.

Jordan, Iraq and Egypt are also common destinations, last year hosting a collective Syrian refugee population that surpassed one million people.

Many Syrians have business or personal ties to neighboring countries, said social anthropologist Dawn Chatty. Her recent book examines the history of migration in the Middle East, in which pre-war Syria was a refuge rather than a refugee state – granting asylum to people including Armenians, Kurds, Palestinians and Iraqis. There is a strong tradition of duty-based asylum in the Middle East, she said, calling it “the duty to be generous.”

“This is about providing sanctuary, about providing for the needs of the stranger, the person who has lost everything,” Chatty said. “Part of that comes from that kind of social obligation which every society has. In some societies it’s more pronounced than others.”

Europe

While more than half of Syria’s refugees remain in the Middle East, millions have also undertaken perilous journeys across the Mediterranean and beyond. Last year alone, European Union countries took in more than 96,000 people from Syria, roughly a third of the asylum seekers tracked in 2018 by the EU statistical office, Eurostat. The bulk went to Germany, which in 2018 granted protected status to nearly 67,000 Syrians.

According to the UNHCR, there were more than 584,000 Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers living in Germany last year. The domestic attitude towards refugees is generally positive, concluded a recent study by the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration. The non-partisan organization publishes a biennial “integration barometer,” measuring the public’s opinion of newcomers. The 2018 barometer found that most Germans believe refugees enrich their country’s economy and culture, though a minority viewed them as a threat to prosperity.

Petra Bendel, who chairs the integration council, says tapping into local goodwill could be a way forward from a state-level stalemate that has mired European migration policy. While asylum-seekers continue to arrive in hotspots such as the Greek islands, the response by EU member states has been lopsided, with some countries granting asylum at far higher rates than others. The influx of refugees has also provoked anti-immigration groups, including the far-right Generation Identity movement that in 2017 hired a boat to ward off refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean.

Bendel and her council are calling for new policy that would divert some EU refugee funding to towns and cities that want to help. The municipalities would create “migration profiles,” outlining the kinds of asylum-seekers they are best able to support, Bendel said. Athens’ mayor in 2016 proposed a similar initiative called Solidarity Cities, to create a network of European cities that work together to alleviate the refugee crisis.

Alongside Germany, countries including Greece, Sweden and Austria are top destinations for Syrian refugees who leave the Middle East. Though the number of people seeking asylum in Europe started to decline in 2017, following a period of explosive growth, Syrians remain the largest group of people living in EU countries under protected status.

North America

Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have also crossed the Atlantic, headed for the United States and Canada. The outflow in 2015 and 2016 overlapped with election years in both countries, sparking political debate about refugee policy.

The Trump administration has drastically restricted the number of refugees the U.S. accepts each year. Department of State data shows the federal government accepted nearly 85,000 refugees in its 2016 financial year – a number cut to 22,491 by the end of the most recent financial year.

Refugees from Syria were particularly hard-hit by the restrictions. The U.S. only took half as many from 2016 to 2017 — from 12,587 to 6,557. In the 2018 financial year, the United States took in just 62 Syrian refugees.

In Canada, accepting Syrian refugees became part of a winning Liberal Party platform during the 2015 national election. In his campaign, now-Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed to bring 25,000 Syrians into the country by the end of 2015. Once in office, Trudeau ultimately missed the deadline, though Canada has since taken nearly 68,000 refugees from Syria.

Canada allows citizens to privately sponsor refugees, in addition to government programs. More than half of all Syrians who have arrived in Canada since 2015 were privately sponsored, according to the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. Two million citizens report they have been involved personally in resettling the refugees.

“The public’s imagination was captured in 2015,” said Jennifer Bond, who advised Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship on its Syrian Refugee Resettlement Initiative.

Bond – who herself helped sponsor a family of five – now leads the Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative. The organization is backed by the UNHCR and promotes Canada’s private resettlement model in countries including Ireland, Argentina, Spain and New Zealand.

Four years later, the challenge in Canada – as in other countries still responding to the Syrian refugee crisis – has become keeping the public’s attention, Bond said. “The spotlight has turned away, but there’s a lot more work we have to do.”

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