Note: Data in these sections were collected in 2014-15, and may no longer be accurate at this time.

Humanitarian Crisis

Syrian boys, whose family fled their home in Idlib, walk to their tent at a camp for displaced Syrians in Atmeh, Syria, Dec. 10, 2012 - Alex Rondu, Freedom House

Remarking on the inability of the international community to halt human suffering in Syria, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres stated that “this is the biggest humanitarian tragedy since the Rwandan genocide.” Indeed, over three and a half years of conflict have left more than 220,000 Syrians killed and nearly11 million displaced inside and outside the country. Despite attempts to disburse aid to Syrians in need, the Syrian government and rebels have repeatedly blocked humanitarian access to civilians inside the war-torn country. Meanwhile, Syria’s civilians--particularly in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and Hama--face a daily barrage of shelling and bombing from Assad’s regime, which frequently dropscluster and “barrel bombs” on rebel-held neighborhoods. In areas controlled by Islamic extremists, which now amounts to roughly one-half of the entire country, Syrians are forced to abide by strict interpretations of Islamic law.




These stories provide a first-hand account of the humanitarian crisis.


David Miliband addresses the Syrian Humanitarian Crisis at Harvard Kennedy School’s 2015 Commencement

Children Of The Syria Conflict | World Vision UK

Meet One of the Syrian Refugee Children | UNICEF


Syria’s humanitarian crisis at a glance

  • According to Amnesty International's May 2015 report on war crimes in Aleppo, "Civilians in the city of Aleppo, Syria are being subjected to appalling human rights violations committed by the Syrian government and many armed opposition groups. These violations amount to war crimes and in the case of those committed by the Syrian government, are so systematic and widespread that they constitute crimes against humanity."
  • This April 2015 report from the EU breaks down the crisis in numbers, highlights the main challenges including health care and spillover, and documents the EU response.
  • In October 2014, Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies hosted a workshop focusing on the humanitarian crisis. The resulting report "summarizes the discussions and highlights the origins, status, and likely policy challenges of the crisis."
    • In January 2014, the Middle East Institute also hosted a half-day conferenceto discuss the humanitarian crisis in Syria focusing on the urgency on the ground, spillover effects, and policy solutions moving forward.
  • Frontline’s documentary “Syria Behind the Lines” vividly demonstrates the daily struggles of Syrians on both sides of the conflict.
  • In a second segment, Frontline explores the war from the perspective of Syria’s children. CNN also reports from Damascus on the plight of malnourished children in Syria.
  • According to a report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre of the Norwegian Refugee Council, one family flees Syria every minute, or 9,500 civilians daily.
  • Pieter Both and Wim Zwijnenburg explore the toxic footprint of the war, concluding that "a long-term public health crisis is in the making."
  • The Women’s Media Center displays instances of sexual violence reported in Syria in an interactive crowdsourcing map.
  • A report by the Cluster Munition Coalition documented at least 264 deaths and 1,320 injuries in Syria from cluster bombs dropped by the Assad regime in 2012 and 2013. The report stated that “hundreds more were recorded in the first half of 2014,” and that 97% of cluster bombs deaths were civilian.



By the Numbers

Death toll220,00010,700 children;
7,600 women;
36,000 Syrian rebels;
46,000 Syrian Army
Numbers as of February 2015 form the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights
Displaced11 million4 million outside Syria;
7.6 million inside Syria
51% female; 49% male
Refugees (as of June 2015 from UNHCR)4 millionJordan: 650,000
Lebanon: 1,200,000
Turkey: 1,800,000
Iraq: 250,000
Egypt: 150,000
These countries are suffering from scarce resources, price hikes, unemployment, and increased violence.
In need of humanitarian assistance12.2 million1 million under siegeMany of these civilians have no access to humanitarian assistance.



Health36 confirmed cases of polio
7,000 cases of measles
H1-N1 has also been reported in Syria.
Education4.5 million children in need of education services;
3,400 schools destroyed or damaged
Economy(projected) 7.9% in 2015
11.9% contraction in 2014
13% contraction in 2013
19% contraction in 2012
4/5 Syrians living in poverty in 2014; 2/3 in extreme poverty
Product of massive devaluation, loss of forex reserves, inflation, and international sanctions


  • According to Zaher Sahloul, President of the Syrian American Medical Society, "Physicians for Human Rights said government forces were responsible for 90% of the confirmed 150 attacks on 124 facilities between March 2011 and March 2014, which have devastated the country’s health care system. Of the more than 460 civilian health professionals killed across Syria, at least 157 were doctors, followed by 94 nurses, 84 medics, and 45 pharmacists. Approximately 41% of the deaths occurred during shelling and bombings, 31% were the result of shootings, and 13% were due to torture."



Official Documents

Select UN documents on Syria

(For a more complete list, see the Security Council Report)



Response Plans (UN and U.S.)

  • Regional Refugee & Resilience Plan 2015-2016 (3RP) (12/18/14): "The Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP) brings together the plans developed under the leadership of national authorities - namely, the Arab Republic of Egypt, the Republic of Iraq, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Lebanese Republic, and the Republic of Turkey – to ensure protection, humanitarian assistance and strengthen resilience." The plan calls for $5.5 billion to fund both refugee and resilience components of the plan, and it breaks these figures down by country needs.
  • 2015 Strategic Response Plan: Syrian Arab Republic (12/18/14): The Strategic Response Plan establishes a plan for humanitarian response in 2015, to be coordinated with the government of Syria, calling for a timely delivery of humanitarian assistance for the over 12 million in need. The strategic objectives include protection, life saving assistance, resilience, harmonized coordination. The plan calls for $2.9 billion in assistance for the Syrian people in 2015.
  • U.S. Country Report for Human Rights Practices – 2013 Syria: “The Assad regime continued to use indiscriminate and deadly force to quell protests and conducted air and ground-based military assaults on cities, residential areas, and civilian infrastructures, including schools and hospitals throughout the country…The most egregious human rights problems during the year were the regime’s widespread and systematic attacks against civilians; systematic and widespread use of torture; and the perpetuation of massacres, forced displacement, and starvation.”

Notes: As of October 24, 2014, US humanitarian aid to Syria has nearly reached $3 billion since early 2011. Also, as of December 1, 2014, the World Food Programme suspended operations to feed roughly 1.7 million Syrian refugees in the region due to lack of funding.






Spillover Effects

As of May 2015, nearly 4 million people have fled Syria, a total surpassing all other countries in conflict worldwide. The vast majority have sought refuge in neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. On top of the influx of refugees, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq face an increase in Syria-related violence and, willingly or unwillingly, have become conduits for foreign fighters.

In December 2014, Amnesty International issued this report detailing the living conditions of refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt and condemning the international community for not doing more to help these Syrians.



  • Admission to Lebanon for Syrians has been restricted in 2015 to those who can produce valid identity documents and proof that their stay in Lebanon fits into one of the approved entry categories. Seeking refuge is not an approved reason other than in exceptional circumstances to be assessed by the Ministry of Social Affairs.
  • The Carnegie Endowment reports that, "tolerance for the refugees is gradually turning into resentment, as Syrians are now present in almost every town and city in Lebanon. According to Lebanese government sources, Syrians occupy 60 percent of the Lebanese labor market, while the economic burden caused by the refugee problem has reached $3 billion, putting severe strain on the national infrastructure."
  • In April 2014, Lebanon earned the dubious distinction as the first of Syria’s neighbors to register more than one million refugees, bringing the total percentage of Syrians in Lebanon to 1 in 4.
  • AP reports that "women and children make up 80% of the 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon," and "Syrian women and girls are growing more vulnerable to sexual exploitation in Lebanon as their exile drags out and poverty increases... Some women are driven into outright prostitution. Others... engage in what relief workers call survival sex, striking up sexual relationships with men who can provide rent or food."
  • On August 2, 2014, Syrian insurgents killed 10 Lebanese troops and captured over a dozen during a raid on the Lebanese border town of Arsal.
  • According to the UN High Commissioner on Refugees, Lebanon “has experienced serious economic shocks due to the conflict in Syria, including a decline in trade, tourism and investment and an increase in public expenditures. Public services are struggling to meet increased demand, with health, education, electricity, and water and sanitation particularly taxed.” The Syria crisis “cost Lebanon $2.5 billion in lost economic activity during 2013 and threatens to push 170,000 Lebanese into poverty by the end of this year. Wages are plummeting, and families are struggling to make ends meet.”
  • Lebanon has also witnessed a surge in Syria-related violence, including regular clashes between Sunni and Shi’a residents in Tripoli, a series of bombings attributed to Sunni extremists in Beirut, and government artillery strikes in border towns. A number of these attacks have targeted Lebanese Hezbollah, though others have taken the lives of high-profile moderate officials.



*The Carnegie Endowment also provides an overview of the Syrian refugee crisis in the region and a detailed look at the situation in each neighboring country. The report also provides a solution and road map to deal with the crisis.

**The International Rescue Committee publishes first-hand stories from Syrian refugees across the region on their website.

What specific challenges do women face, both as refugees and as civilians living in Syria?

Rape and sexual violence are endemic in Syria.

Female refugees are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

  • Karen Leigh (NYT, 8/29/2014): "As [Lauren Wolfe, Director of Women Under Siege] traveled through the camp, which houses more than 140,000 Syrians, [she] began asking other women their stories and found that the cycle had become common – unemployed men, frustrated with their situation, were taking that anger out on their wives and children."
  • Human Rights Watch (11/27/13): “Syrian women refugees have been sexually harassed by employers, landlords, and even faith-based aid distributors in Lebanon…Human Rights Watch interviewed a dozen women who described being groped, harassed and pressured to have sex.”
  • UN Women (July 2013): “Women and children, who make up 80% of Jordan’s Syrian refugee population, are vulnerable to an increased risk of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, yet have limited opportunities to access safe spaces or social services.”

Women lack access to basic services.

  • Sarah Costa (Huffington Post, 3/7/14): “Structural inequalities in the distribution of food, supplies and information, where registration for refugee services is via ‘head of household’—usually male—and communications are made via male camp ‘street leaders,’ mean that women can lack direct access to food vouchers and services.”
  • UN Women (July 2013): “Accessing basic resources and specialized services is the biggest challenge for Syrian refugee women and children (girls in particular) due to their limited ability to leave the home without a male family member… The requirement of the accompaniment by a male relative makes it harder for women to engage in economic activities, receive education, participate in social activities, or receive aid, since only 20% of refugees in Jordan are adult males.”

What impact has the crisis had on children in Syria?

Children, specifically young boys, are recruited or sold into battle.

  • Francesca Trianni (TIME, 6/22/2014): "It’s not clear exactly how many child soldiers are fighting in Syria, but groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al-Qaeda offshoot aligned with rebels fighting against forces aligned with Syrian President Bashar Assad as well as the Nusra Front have encouraged boys as young as 15 to fight, at times recruiting them through free schooling campaigns."
  • ABC interviews a Syrian mother whose son was sold into battle.

Young girls face forced marriages.

  • Save the Children reports that "early and forced marriage among Syrian refugee girls in Jordan has doubled since the onset of the war," and "a quarter of all Syrian refugee marriages registered in Jordan now involve a girl under the age of 18."
  • Justine Greening (Guardian, 3/14/14): “20% of Syrian girls are now married by the time they reach the age of 16 which is a shocking statistic…Many of them are married to men that they have no knowledge of at all, who may literally be turning up to find a bride.”
  • Dr. Amira Mohamed (Independent, 3/9/14): “We hear lots of stories about brokers who take girls from the Syrian community and do matchmaking for marriage, for local men and men from abroad. And the marriage will be very short term, it could only last 24 hours, just to give a legal cover for sexual exploitation.”

Access to education and proper health care is limited.

  • Syria Deeply (10/12/2014): On October 8th, a double suicide attack in front of an elementary school in Homs claimed the lives of 43 children and wounded 100 others.
  • Gloia Forster and Raneem Qubatros (4/10/14): “Millions of children are not going to school; some haven't been for three years. Many schools have been destroyed in battles or taken over as combat posts… The war between government and rebel forces has destroyed 4,000 school buildings… (and) "Children aged 12 and above are at a higher risk of leaving school and joining the labor force or fighting.”
  • USAID (January 2014): In January, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States will provide $380 million in additional U.S. humanitarian assistance. “Syria's youth are paying the heaviest toll. To keep children healthy, this U.S. government funding ensures vaccination campaigns for measles, rubella, and polio continue for millions of children in the region.”
  • UNICEF (December 2013): “Half of Syrian children in Syria and over 500,000 refugee children outside Syria are not in school.”

For a general look at the devastating impact of the civil war on children three years after the onset of the war, see UNICEF's report "Children Under Siege in Syria."




What course of action should the international community take to address the humanitarian crisis inside Syria?

In the United States, do more to raise private donations

  • Elizabeth Dickinson (Foreign Policy, 3/31/15): "Syria may be the costliest humanitarian crisis in U.N. history — but it has raised pennies in the United States. The international NGO World Vision, which works with the U.N.-coordinated aid operation, is just one of the organizations that has struggled to sell the crisis to donors: It has raised $2.7 million dollars in private donations for the Syria crisis over the course of four years — less than half of the $5.9 million it raised in the first week after the 2010 Haiti earthquake."

Appoint a “humanitarian envoy” to coordinate negotiations for humanitarian relief access to Syria.

  • David Miliband (TIME, 3/26/14): “First, each permanent member of the Security Council, and others concerned with the crisis, should appoint a full-time Humanitarian Envoy...Second, legitimize, enhance and support cross-border activity to provide relief supplies to civilians in rebel-held areas as demanded in the UN resolution...Third, make real the goal of access to besieged areas...Fourth, engage all relevant powers in the humanitarian dialogue...Fifth, the UN and its agencies must maximize the potential of humanitarian organizations to fulfill the mandate of the resolution...And sixth, we need an effective system of resettlement in third countries.”

Threaten the use of force to compel the Assad regime to allow humanitarian relief to reach Syrians in need.

  • Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi (New York Times, 2/10/14): “We should invoke the Responsibility to Protect, the principle that if a state fails to protect its populations from mass atrocities — or is in fact the perpetrator of such crimes — the international community must step in to protect the victims, with the collective use of force authorized by the Security Council.”

Demand that the Syrian regime allows the distribution of humanitarian aid and investigation of human rights violations.

  • Amnesty International (2/14/14): “The Syrian government must allow the UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Syria access to investigate all human rights violations and abuses, including those amounting to crimes against humanity and war crimes, being committed by all parties to the conflict. It should also allow access to Amnesty International and other human rights organizations.”

Scale up humanitarian aid to keep pace with the scope and scale of Syrians’ needs.

  • Nicholas Burns (Boston Globe, 12/4/2014): "Syria’s civil war will almost certainly worsen as 2015 approaches. Obama needs to act with much greater energy and conviction to help millions of Syrians escape their increasingly unbearable national nightmare."
  • Valerie Amos (ReliefWeb, 3/28/14): “We need to see a significant step-change in the speed and scale of humanitarian aid, if we are to save lives and keep pace with the ever-growing needs. This piecemeal approach, despite the best efforts of humanitarian workers on the ground, is not delivering change fast enough.”

How should the international community address the more than 4 million refugees who have fled Syria?

Assist long-term refugees in maintaining their livelihoods in host countries.

  • Amanda Roth (World Policy Blog, 4/10/14): “First, receiving countries must stop warehousing refugees in large camps such as Za’atari...Second, funding should be targeted to sustain refugees and to stabilize the local population...The international community must acknowledge that the majority of refugee situations are protracted, and that allowing refugees to hold jobs or farm local land is the only way to promote long-term stability.”
  • Harvard Field Study (January 2014): “Syrian refugees are not authorized to work. Therefore, they are heavily reliant on international aid, which they complement with income-generating activities in the informal sector…Donors and institutions need to focus on furthering access to employment and education. Potential avenues could include integrating policies that encourage Syrian business ownership, payment of taxes, and skill development that will benefit host countries’ long-term economies.”

The United States should work more closely with regional allies and establish innovative funding mechanisms to address the crisis.

  • Samuel Berger (Foreign Policy, 6/10/15): “The international community must fundamentally reconsider how it approaches these issues. First, we should view the challenges posed by these basic needs as threats to our own national security… Second, our allies in the Gulf can do more to strengthen international relief efforts, while continuing to contribute to targeted Islamic relief groups such as International Blue Crescent… Third, we need new funding mechanisms if we are to meet these enormous needs."

Scale up humanitarian aid to keep pace with the magnitude of Syrians’ needs.

  • António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (12/16/13): “We’re facing a terrifying situation here where, by the end of 2014, substantially more of the population of Syria could be displaced or in need of humanitarian help than not…This goes beyond anything we have seen in many, many years, and makes the need for a political solution all the greater.”

Establish a coordinated international strategy for resettlement of refugees in third countries.

  • UNHCR (2/21/14): Calls on states to “make multi-annual commitments towards a goal of providing resettlement and other forms of admission for an additional 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016.”