Photograph by Ed Kashi, VII


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A girl removes her shoes before entering her family tent at the Domiz camp for Syrian refugees just outside of Dohuk, Iraq, last year.

Photograph by Ed Kashi, VII


Half of Syrians Displaced: 5 Takeaways From New UN Report

More than half of those uprooted from their homes are children.

Nearly half of all Syrians have been forced to leave their homes, with the number of refugees who have fled the country swelling past three million, according to a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report released Friday.

The Syrian crisis "has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era, yet the world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them," said António Guterres, the UNHCR's high commissioner, in a statement.

Between those who have fled the country and those who have been internally displaced, more than half of Syria's people have deserted their homes as warring separatist forces, including those from the Islamic State, battle each other and the government forces of Bashar al-Assad for control of vast swaths of territory. (Related: "Iraq: 1,200 Years of Turbulent History in Five Maps.")

More than one million people have fled the country in just the past 12 months, according to the UNHCR. And those are just the officially reported cases. The actual number may be higher than three million.

"This huge number reflects the extreme gravity of the situation," UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards, speaking from Geneva, told National Geographic. "There is currently no end in sight."

Here are five key takeaways from the UN report:

1. Conditions in Syria are "increasingly horrifying."

Conditions in Syria are deteriorating quickly. There are "cities where populations are surrounded, people are going hungry and civilians are being targeted or indiscriminately killed," according to the report.

"This is not a bad but stable situation," says UNHCR's Edwards. "This is a bad and getting worse situation," with more than one million refugees registered this past year alone.

The numbers are growing by the day. Edwards, looking at his computer while speaking by phone to National Geographic on Friday, said his data showed that an additional 1,500 refugees had been registered just over the past 24 hours.

People are being forced to move not just once, but multiple times, and are having difficulty moving around within Syria. The report states that an increasing number of refugees "are arriving in a shocking state, exhausted, scared and with their savings depleted. Most have been on the run for a year or more, fleeing from village to village before taking the final decision to leave."

Prices inside the country, meanwhile, are skyrocketing. Bread in one village near the city of Idlib now costs ten times more than it did last year, the report says.

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Refugees walk through the overcrowded Zaatri refugee camp for Syrians near Mafraq, Jordan.

2. It is getting harder to escape.

"Many people [are] forced to pay bribes at armed checkpoints proliferating along the borders," a UN statement said on Friday. "Refugees crossing the desert into eastern Jordan are being forced to pay smugglers hefty sums (U.S. $100 a head or more) to take them to safety."

Recent arrivals to Jordan, meanwhile, are running from attacks in the areas of Ar Raqqah and Aleppo.

There are indications that many are trying to flee Syria by boat.

Edwards says that more than 110,000 refugees have arrived in Italy since the beginning of the year, a significant leap from the 60,000 "we saw crossing the Mediterranean" during the Libyan crisis in 2011 over the course of the entire year. That number does not include only Syrian refugees, but the jump is believed to be due in part to the deteriorating situation in Syria.

In a separate statement, UNHCR special envoy Angelina Jolie said that Syrians were also drowning while trying to escape the conflict: "Syrian refugees are dying in the Mediterranean Sea, trying to reach Europe."

No exact figures on Syrian refugee drownings were immediately available.

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A 15-year-old Syrian girl shops for clothes in a local shop in Mafraq, Jordan. The previous night, her family was robbed at gunpoint in their tent, and all of their belongings were stolen.

3. Over half of the uprooted are children.

"We are dealing with trauma cases," says Edwards, referring to the experiences of Syria's children.

In addition to the ongoing trauma, many children are not in school and are losing precious years of education. The UNHCR, along with various governments, agencies, and groups, have enrolled 350,000 refugee children in schools in the past year. The UN agency is urging action to help Syria's youngest.

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A girl enjoys a treat at the Domiz camp for Syrian refugees in Iraq.

4. Bordering countries are struggling to meet refugees' needs.

The majority of refugees are seeking shelter in Lebanon (1.14 million), Turkey (815,000), and Jordan (608,000). But the report says that beyond the three million refugees registered since the start of the conflict, "governments estimate hundreds of thousands more Syrians have sought sanctuary in their countries."

This has led to an enormous strain on their economies, infrastructures, and resources.

The UNHCR statement said that an increasing number of new arrivals from Syria—up to 15 percent in Jordan, for example—"were suffering from long-term medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and left because they were no longer able to get adequate health care at home." Those medical needs now fall to the refugees' host countries.

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A couple spends time in their family tent at the Domiz camp.

5. Bordering countries are not necessarily safer than Syria.

While the majority of refugees have sought help in relatively stable countries, some have fled into Iraq as that country struggles with a takeover by Islamic State insurgents.

The UNHCR report expressed deep concern for the well-being of several hundred Syrians trapped inside the Al Obaidy refugee camp in Al Qa'im, Iraq, "after UN agencies and international NGOs were forced to abandon their offices and warehouses."