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Understanding the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Over the past several weeks, we've heard a lot about the plight of refugees fleeing Syria and its neighboring countries for safer and more stable living conditions in Europe. Such a systemic, rapidly-changing issue can be hard to comprehend, but we are confronted with images and stories that beg for our understanding. It has been designated the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II, and everyone from sovereign countries to individual citizens is trying to decide how best to respond.

UNHCR relief for Syrian refugees in Iraq
Syrian refugees in Iraq receive UNHCR relief

A note on terminology: While the words "refugee," "migrant," and others are often used interchangeably in news coverage of Syria, these words do have different meanings. Refugees have left their home countries due to armed conflict or persecution. They are entitled to protection under international law, as well as refugee-specific protections provided by individual countries. Migrants have left their home countries for better work opportunities, standards of living, etc. They can return without putting their lives at risk. The groups of people currently entering Europe from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa consist of both refugees and migrants, but those originating from Syria are accurately identified as refugees.

Syria has been embroiled in a civil war for over four years. Before the war, it had a population of about 22 million people. Since then, over 7 million have been internally displaced within the country, and over 4 million are temporarily settled as refugees in neighboring countries (Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have the highest numbers). Over 250,00 people have been killed, many of them civilians. The number of people fleeing Syria has increased as the conflict has grown and spread to more populous areas, and as the country's internal infrastructure has increasingly collapsed. At the same time, neighboring countries' resources become more and more strained.

All of these factors have led Syrian refugees to begin traveling to European countries in much higher numbers. Over half a million refugees have entered Greece, Italy, and Hungary so far this year, compared to 280,000 last year. Six of the most popular destination countries (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Finland) expect to receive over 1.3 million asylum applications this year alone. (To put this in perspective, UNHCR reports that Europe received 222,156 asylum applications between April 2011 and December 2014.) The journey to Europe is also significantly more dangerous. Most travel by boat from Turkey to Greece; the most perilous route is from Libya to Italy.

Sign welcoming Syrian refugees to Sweden
Sign welcoming Syrian refugees to Sweden

Some European countries have welcomed arriving refugees, while others discourage their stay through a lack of services, hostile messaging, or outright violence. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been especially vocal, urging refugees not to travel through Hungary and spearheading the construction of a fence along his country's border with Serbia. Even those willing to help struggle to keep pace with the demand.

To resettle the refugees that are currently so heavily concentrated in European border countries, the EU recently approved a plan to move 160,000 people from "hotspots" in Greece and Italy to other EU member states. The United States has announced that it will accept a maximum of 70,000 refugees this year, gradually increasing to 100,000 by 2017. This is a total number, with no percentage designated specifically for Syrian refugees. Since the beginning of the Syrian war, the United States has admitted fewer than 1,500 Syrian refugees.

In late September, the U.S. government announced an additional $419 million in humanitarian aid for Syria, and the European Commission pledged an additional €801 million, with a further €900 million proposed for their 2016 budget. Refugee assistance organizations continue to petition for funding, with the UNHCR only 44% funded for its plan to deliver aid to Syrian refugees residing in neighboring Middle Eastern countries.

To assist in the acute and ever-growing need of the Syrian refugee crisis, consider writing a U.S. or international representative, contributing to humanitarian organizations like UNHCR, and staying informed about new developments. The articles and news sources listed below are good starting points for learning more.


News about the Syrian war and its refugees is constantly evolving. In addition to the specific sources above, the following publications are helpful resources to consult for new reporting and updated information.

A line of Syrian refugees waiting to enter Austria from Hungary
A line of refugees waits to enter Austria from Hungary

Publicly Available

Available from Home with Your NYPL Library Card

Our online library catalog contains many titles for you to learn more about the history of the Syrian civil war, such as The Syrian Uprising: Dynamics of an Insurgency or personal narratives like The Fear of Breathing: Stories from the Syrian Revolution. Search the "Syria -- History -- Civil War, 2011-" subject heading for more examples.

Image Credits

Image 1 courtesy IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Image 2 courtesy Frankie Fouganthin and Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Image 3 courtesy Mstyslav Chernov and Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)


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Thank you for sharing this

Thank you for sharing this extremely important information with the public.


this is incredibly misleading. These people were invited into these countries by politicians, thats why the numbers are increasing. Most of these countries can not handle the burden (even the wealthier nations such as Sweden can not house them) and most of these migrants are men where are all the women and children (yet i find it interesting that every time a pitty article like this one is written it shows a photo of a poor child with a mother regardless of the fact that they are the minority). What is probably happening is that they are moving to these european countries to gain money to send back home. This would be fine if they went through the immigration process to do this but it seems as if this Syrian “refugee” crisis is giving them a free pass to bypass this process. Thats why they pass perfectly war free countries to enter richer ones that provide things to refugees such as jobs, housing and welfare. They literally don’t even stop in war free countries in the middle east. This all seems like emotional blackmail to put the needs of your people behind the needs of the people of other countries in hopes of being viewed in a good light. All of syria can not move to Europe. To flood Europe with immigrants all at once removes the probability and ability for them to integrate into the culture and causes conflict as it so obviously has. Accepting all who would come is a stupid way of dealing with the problem and makes your country an easy prey. The way these countries have set it up has made it easy for anyone to enter, in some cases without even needing proof of if you are truly a qualified refugee.

Please back up your claims

Data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees shows that 50.5 percent of refugees are women. Females age 18 to 59 make up 23.9 percent of the refugees, while males in that age group make up 21.8 percent.

Even more misleading.

The countries where this data that you are giving are for are Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. If you follow the link that fact check uses you would see this. So this would be true that women and men migrating are equal if we are talking about middle eastern countries. I however am referring to the EUROPE migrant crisis. When fact check checked the facts they made sure to use data only for the countries where men and women were equal. Or they did not bother to read the information given by the UN. This is the data for the migrants in the eu who claim to also be refugees escaping war. Over 80 percent are men. Most of the people going into europe are going to germany and other very liberal progressive countries regardless of if they (the migrants) have liberal ideals and they pass a great deal of perfectly war free countries to do so. These are also only numbers for those who chose to go the legal route and aren't invading and staying without permission like many clearly are even after these countries review their information and determine that they do not qualify as a refugee (that's why they are reinforcing border controls in a lot of these countries, otherwise they will come in anyway)

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