BEIRUT, Lebanon — More than 6 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes by the civil war, now in its third year, according to new figures from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).
The number of refugees registered with the agency in neighboring countries reached 2 million this week, the agency said. A further 4.2 million are internally displaced, living in tents or in crowded homes inside Syria.
“The war is now well into its third year and Syria is hemorrhaging women, children and men who cross borders often with little more than the clothes on their backs,” the UN report, released on Sep. 3, said.
Syria’s prewar population was 20.8 million, meaning almost a third of them are displaced — more than half of them children.
But thousands more have fled the country and failed to register with the UNHCR out of fear or lack of awareness.
“People are already so fearful of the situation,” said one Syrian refugee who lives in a squatter camp built on privately owned vacant land near Beirut. “When strangers come here asking questions and try to take names and IDs, they are afraid they will give these details to the Syrian regime.”
Another refugee family in Lebanon said Syrian government soldiers had shot one brother and an uncle in two separate incidents when they attempted to cross back into Syria to retrieve some of the possessions they left behind.
Convinced that either Lebanese government officials or local aid agencies had listed them as rebel supporters and alerted the Syrian government, the family now struggles to survive in squalid conditions without the aid available to registered families.
The influx of Syrians fleeing to nearby countries, which host at least 97 percent of Syria’s refugees, has placed an overwhelming burden on their infrastructure and economies.
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The pressure has caused these countries to tighten restrictions on Syrian refugees.
Last week, a report by Refugees International, an advocacy organization based in DC, said a new policy requiring Syrians to pay $200 each year to stay in Lebanon had “forced many families underground and countless others out of the country.”
Turkey and Iraq have also limited the flow of Syrian displaced, imposing a daily quota that leaves thousands camped out just inside Syria at the border.
“The ultimate effect of these policies is that fewer Syrians can escape the terrible violence engulfing their country,” said senior advocate with Refugees International, Daryl Grisgraber.
Talk of US airstrikes against Syrian regime targets in recent days has prompted a fresh outflow of refugees into Lebanon. Reports from humanitarian workers in Lebanon say anywhere from 10,000-25,000 new refugees have crossed into the country both legally and illegally in the past week.
Arriving in Lebanon Monday, Oxfam America President Ray Offenheiser urged the US to cease plans for an attack and instead concentrate on easing the humanitarian crisis in the region.
“The Syrian refugees I’ve met this week are crying out for peace,” he said. “Ultimately, there must be a political solution to the crisis. Military intervention will only make matters worse and cause more suffering.”
Offenheiser said instead of focusing on military intervention and sending more arms to Syria, US President Barack Obama should “intensify peaceful efforts to stop the bloodshed and expand humanitarian aid to those in need.”