BEIRUT — As the United States debates whether to strike at Syria, the United Nations said Tuesday that the number of Syrians who have fled their homeland has exceeded 2 million, a figure rising daily as the conflict in that country continues to rage.
The U.N. and refugee agencies highlighted the gloomy milestone in a bid to spur international support and fundraising for relief efforts. At a crucial moment, the U.N. said, humanitarian agencies have less than half of the funds required to meet basic refugee needs.
“Syria has become the great tragedy of this century — a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history,” Antonio Guterres, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said in a statement.
The 2 million mark has been reached at a moment when Washington is contemplating missile strikes against the Syrian government for its alleged use of chemical weapons. Some in the region fear that any sustained U.S. attack could send a new wave of panicked Syrians fleeing toward the nation’s borders.
More than half of the Syrian refugees are children, age 17 and younger, the U.N. said.
In fact, many more than 2 million Syrians have fled their embattled homeland. The figure refers only to those who have registered or are in the process of registering with the U.N. for aid. Hundreds of thousands have never signed up.
Inside Syria, the U.N. said, an additional 4.5 million Syrians have been displaced because of the war. When refugees and the internally displaced are counted together, more than 1 in 4 Syrians have been driven from their homes, the world body said.
The vast majority of Syrian refugees have ended up in four neighboring nations: Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. Some live in refugee camps, but most find apartments, rooms or other places to live, sometimes residing with relatives, friends or fellow refugees outside any organized camp regimen.
Tiny Lebanon, with a population of 4 million, has been especially hard hit. More than 1 million Syrians are now residing in Lebanon, the government said, straining the nation’s delicate social fabric and its fragile, multi-sectarian democracy. Gun battles, car bombings and other violence linked to the Syrian crisis have become relatively commonplace in Lebanon.
Alarmed by the influx, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have recently tightened entry requirements for Syrians. But Iraq, where strict restrictions had been in place, has opened its borders in the last two weeks to more than 40,000 Syrians, mostly ethnic Kurds from northern Syria fleeing fighting between Islamist Arab rebels and Kurdish militiamen. Syrian Kurds continue arriving daily to Iraq’s semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region.