BEIRUT – The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country and are seeking assistance has now topped the 1 million mark, the U.N. refugee agency said today, warning that Syria is heading toward a “full-scale disaster.”
The announcement came as government troops and rebels fought street battles in Syria’s strategic northern city of Raqqa, and regime forces dispatched reinforcements in an attempt to push out opposition gunmen who now control most of the city, activists said.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said in a statement released in Geneva that the 1 million figure is based on reports from his agency’s field offices in countries neighboring Syria that have provided safe haven for refugees escaping the civil war.
“With a million people in flight, millions more displaced internally, and thousands of people continuing to cross the border every day, Syria is spiraling towards full-scale disaster,” Guterres said.
Syria’s uprising began in March 2011 with protests against President Bashar Assad’s authoritarian rule. When the government cracked down on demonstrators, the opposition took up arms and the conflict turned into a full-blown civil war. The United Nations estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed.
The relentless violence also has devastated many cities and forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians to seek refuge abroad.
In Lebanon, 19-year-old Bushra, a mother of two, became the millionth Syrian refugee registered in the region since the conflict began. Since fleeing the fighting in central city of Homs a few weeks ago, Bushra has lived in the Lebanon’s restive city of Tripoli, squeezed into a room with 20 other people.
“Our life conditions are very bad, it is very expensive here (in Lebanon) and we cannot find any work,” Bushra, who asked to be identified with her first name for fear of government reprisals, told reporters at a UNHCR registration center in Tripoli in northern Lebanon.
The U.N. refugee agency has registered more than 300,000 Syrians in Lebanon, although its representatives say many more Syrians are living in the country in dire need of basic aid.
“It’s a number, a million, but it’s a number that represents a million individuals,” said Ninette Kelley, the UNHCR’s representative in Lebanon. “A million individual lives, who have been uprooted is a great sense of tragedy and loss that accompanies the flight from violence.”
Guterres said the number of refugees has swelled dramatically this year, with most Syrians pouring into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. More than 400,000 people have become refugees since Jan. 1, and often arrive in neighboring countries “traumatized, without possessions and having lost members of their families,” he said.
Around half are children; the majority under age 11.
“We are doing everything we can to help, but the international humanitarian response capacity is dangerously stretched,” he said.
The U.N. estimated in December that 1.1 million Syrian refugees would arrive in neighboring countries by the end of June this year. At the time, the agency’s regional response plan was only 25 percent funded, and it is now in the process of adjusting that in light of the new figures, Guterres said.
In Beirut, Panos Moumtzis, the UNHCR regional coordinator for Syrian refugees, said that 7,000 Syrians have been crossing into neighboring countries every day since the fighting escalated in December.
This has stretched the resources of states like Lebanon and Jordan, and has made the refugee crisis one of the fastest deteriorating situations in decades, he said.
“When you stand at the border crossing, you see this human river flowing in, day and night,” Moumtzis told The Associated Press after inspecting UNHCR’s registration centers at border crossings in Lebanon.
He said the U.N. refugee agency badly needs money to help host countries cope and manage the refugee population, adding that of the $1 billion for aiding Syrian refugees in neighboring countries that was pledged at the Kuwait donor conference in January, only $200 million has come through.
“We are getting desperate,” Moumtzis said, adding that the agency is able to provide Syrians fleeing violence with a bare minimum: a tent, a blanket, a sleeping mat, 2,000 calories a day and 20 liters of water a day.
“We are going hand to mouth, constantly trying to catch up in a crisis that is complex and dangerous because it has a potential to turn into a regional conflict,” Moumtzis said.
In Cairo, Arab foreign ministers held a meeting, ahead of a scheduled Arab summit later this month, during which the foreign minister of Lebanon and Qatar’s prime minister argued over Syria’s crisis.
Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour called for ending Syria’s suspension from the Arab League saying such a move “is a necessity for a political solution.” He warned that if Arabs don’t work to stop Syria’s civil war and al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists who are playing a bigger role in the conflict the “fire will spread to our nations.”
The 22-member Arab League suspended Syria’s membership in 2011 after Damascus did not abide by an Arab peace plan to end the conflict.
Qatar’s Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim replied that the Arab decisions aimed to resolve the crisis peacefully and not “to create a sea of blood.”
Qatar has been one of Assad’s harshest critics, while Lebanon’s Cabinet is dominated by the militant Hezbollah group that backs the Syrian government.
Also today, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees said Syrian warplanes bombarded rebel-held areas in Raqqa as the fighting intensified around the Military Intelligence headquarters in the city.
Rebels were able to capture most of the city on Monday, tearing down a giant statue of Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, as well as giant posters of the leader in the city. The rebels are now battling pockets of government troops in Raqqa.