14 Things You Need To Know About The Heartbreaking Refugee Crisis

Photo: ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images.
The world is experiencing the worst refugee crisis since World War II.

Entire families are forced to abandon their friends, jobs, and families, fitting their lives into a single small bag, or otherwise leaving the only homes they have ever known. They come from all over the world, fleeing violence and persecution in places that include Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sudan, and Eritrea.

One of the most heartbreaking cases, however, is Syria. More than 4 million people have left the country since pro-democracy protests in 2011 turned into a chaotic civil war. The conflict has also forced another 7.6 million Syrians to flee their homes for safer areas within the state. Often, they are forced to move many times, as military forces and the many different rebel groups fight for control of territory.

Even those who escape the nation's borders face deteriorating conditions in overcrowded refugee camps, where resources and opportunities are increasingly scarce, and many are now leaving those places behind, too, in a desperate bid to reach Europe.

"The Syria crisis is the worst humanitarian crisis of our generation," Brian Hansford, a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman, told Refinery29. As one Syrian described the situation to him, it's "worse than desperate."

Refinery29 is committed to covering the human face of the conflict — how this crisis impacts real men, women, and children every day. We spoke with Syrian women on the ground in Turkey to find out firsthand what it's like to risk everything in the hopes of creating a better life for them and their children. You can read their powerful stories in the first part of our multimedia series, Behind the Headlines: Daughters of Paradise, on November 10.

Refinery29 has also partnered with USA for UNHCR to support refugees around the world. You can make a difference with your donation here: UNrefugees.org/Refinery29.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
How many people have been forced to flee their homes?
More than in any point in modern history. Roughly 60 million people worldwide are now displaced because of war, conflict, and persecution, according to a 2014 estimate by the UNHCR. That includes those forced to flee their countries, as well as people now living elsewhere within their own nation's borders. That is the highest number ever recorded. And the numbers have continued to swell throughout 2015.

"We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement, as well as the response required, is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before," UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said when those figures were released.

Although conflicts in at least 15 regions, and instability in places like Afghanistan and Somalia, play a part in the current crisis, the war in Syria is "the world's single-largest driver of displacement," according to the U.N.

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Photo: ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images.
Who are the Refugees?
The 19.5 million refugees forced to flee their homelands hail from all over the globe, including in Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia.

Syria produced the most refugees by far in 2014 — more than 4 million men, women, and children. More than 2.5 million came from Afghanistan, and just over 1 million are from Somalia. Half of all the world's refugees are children, the UNHCR estimates. They represent all walks of lives and professions: doctors, teachers, construction workers. But many now face extreme poverty; an estimated 86% of refugees are living in economically underdeveloped areas.

There is also a difference between refugees and migrants:. Refugees are people who flee violence and persecution, and cannot return to their homes — and are protected under international law. Migrants are people who leave their countries in search of better economic opportunities or to try to reunite with their families elsewhere.

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Photo: Saleh Mahmoud Laila/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
Why are people fleeing Syria?
Simply put: violence and destruction.

Barrel bombs — improvised explosive devices filled with oil and shrapnel — are dropped from the sky by Syrian government forces. A United Nations commission has documented "gross human-rights violations and war crimes" committed on both sides of the conflict. The U.N. found "clear and convincing evidence" that chemical weapons were deployed against citizens in 2014. Forces allied with the Syrian government are accused of indiscriminately bombing "civilian gathering places" such as markets and bus stops. Opposition groups target residential neighborhoods, killing civilians believed to be loyal to the government. Armed groups, including the Islamic State group, or ISIS, have gained control in parts of the country, inflicting horror on local communities.

The fighting leaves little if any access to jobs and education. The UNHCR estimates that 700,000 Syrian children were out of school last year, and many worry that when the conflict ends, these children will represent a "lost generation." Often, attacks on hospitals and medical personnel prevent those who are injured or sick from getting the help they need.

"As the world stands witness, the Syrian people are suffering to an unimaginable extent," UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria Chair Paulo Sérgio Pinheir said in September.

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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
How did the conflict in Syria start?
Nearly five years ago, Syrians joined millions of other people across the Middle East in demanding reform, along with free and fair elections, after decades of authoritarian rule. As revolutions swept Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and beyond, people in Syria rose up against the authoritarian rule of President Bashar al-Assad, who had taken over the country after the death of his father in 2000.

Clashes between pro-democracy protestors and government forces escalated into a full-on war between the government and a complex web of opposition groups. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the bloody conflict. Roughly half the country's 2013 population of 22 million have been forced to flee their homes. More than 4 million have left the country altogether, with many of them settling in neighboring countries of Turkey and Lebanon.

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Photo: Pool Benainous/Hounsfield/Getty Images.
Who is Bashar al-Assad?
In Syria, power is hereditary. Assad was elected in 2000 with a staggering 97% of the vote, taking over from his father, Hafez al-Assad, after nearly three decades of rule.

An aspiring doctor who studied in London, Assad was not initially designated by his father as the country's next leader. But he was groomed for the job after his brother Bassel died in a car accident.

Relatively young, and having been education abroad, Bashar, along with his wife, Asma, were once embraced by the West. His rule was publicly praised by Secretary of State John Kerry, former President Jimmy Carter, and other leaders. In 2011, Vogue published a profile of Asma al-Assad, calling her "a rose in the desert." (The piece has since been removed from the magazine's website.)

Many Syrians originally hoped that the younger Assad would have a different approach toward political opponents than his father did, who in the 1980s had crushed dissent, killing political opponents. Shortly after taking office, Bashar al-Assad promised reform. In what became known as the Damascus Spring, opposition activists from across the country began openly debating Syria’s future.

But by 2001, the younger Assad began arresting opposition leaders and curbing freedom of the press, according to the BBC. His response to protests in 2011 was similarly brutal. Now, Syria is in the midst of an all-out civil war between Assad's forces and many different rebel groups.
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Photo: Jake Simkin/ AP Photo.
Who is fighting Assad in Syria?
It's complicated. One factor is the sheer number of factions involved, and the opposition to Assad's regime is anything but united. As many as 1,000 rebel groups have joined the fight, according to one estimate published by the BBC in 2013, and their aims and goals differ markedly. The Free Syrian Army, a group made up of former Syrian soldiers and officials who have left Assad's army, has been one key side in the fighting. The militant group, which aims to oust Assad, has received backing from the United States.
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Photo: Balkis Press/Sipa USA/ AP Photo.
How is ISIS involved?
The conflict and chaos in Syria has allowed multiple armed groups to form within the country. The Islamic State group, or ISIS, has been one of the most brutal, as it seizes more and more territory in Syria and Iraq. Fighters allied with the Islamic State group have staged horrific public executions of civilians, journalists abducted in Syria, and mass numbers of captured troops. Girls and women have been kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery by ISIS.

Irreplaceable cultural artifacts, including in the ancient city of Palmyra, have been systematically destroyed. Concerns about ISIS in Syria don't end with the horrific damage inflicted on citizens there. The U.S. and other nations worry the situation in Syria and in Iraq could allow ISIS to strengthen and expand into other parts of the Middle East.
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Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/ AP Photo. and Photo: NIVIERE/ SIPA/ AP Photo.
Why are the U.S. and Russia at odds?
The two world powers are locked in a Cold War-style face off over Syria.

The U.S. has provided support to rebel groups trying to overthrow Assad, while Russia is backing Assad's government. Russia escalated its involvement in the conflict in September, when it launched first airstrikes in the country. Russia says it's targeting ISIS. But the U.S. claims the brunt of the offensive is hitting rebel groups who are allies.

The two leaders laid out their differences in dueling addresses at the U.N. last fall. President Barack Obama blasted Assad as a "tyrant" who "drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children." Obama called for a "managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader, and an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to this chaos so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild."

In his own remarks, Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, said it's an "enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face."

"We should finally acknowledge that no one but President Assad's armed forces and Kurdish militias are truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria," he said.
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Photo: Charles Ommanney /The Washington Post/ Getty Images.
Where are the refugees fleeing Syria going?
Syria's neighbors have taken in the majority of the country's refugee population. Turkey is expected to host 1.7 million Syrian refugees by the end of 2015, according to UNHCR. Lebanon and Jordan have also taken in large numbers. But conditions in those places are deteriorating, and many migrants and refugees, from Syria as well as other nations, are now trying to make it farther into Europe.

Leaders there have agreed to accept 120,000 refugees across the European Union. Germany has so far been the most popular destination, fielding 222,000 applications for asylum as of the end of August, according to data analyzed by the BBC, followed by Hungary, a country that many refugees pass through en route to more developed nations, with nearly 100,000 applications.
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Photo: MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images.
What is life like for refugees who have left Syria?
Millions of refugees — many of them Syrians — are currently living in neighboring countries that include Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Whether they're living in or outside a formal refugee camp, conditions can be dire. One UNHCR and International Relief and Development study found one in six refugee households in Jordan lived in abject poverty — meaning on less than $40 a month — last year. Half had no heat.

Similarly, in Lebanon, nearly three-quarters of refugee families live in poverty. Many refugees have resorted to begging to meet basic needs, the UNHCR said. Access to medical care, including birth control and mental-health services, is limited. Those making the journey to Europe can face harsh living conditions there, too.
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Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.
How are migrants and refugees getting to Europe?
By land and by sea. Hundreds of thousands have made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, often in vessels overflowing with people. More than 770,000 people have landed in Europe by sea in 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

And the tide isn't slowing down. The UNHCR said that a record 218,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean in October alone — a figure that exceeds the total for all 12 months of 2014 combined — and at least 3,423 people have died so far this year. Others try to make their way by land, walking hundreds of miles through Balkan nations such as Serbia and Croatia.
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Photo: Nilufer Demir/AFP/Getty Images.
The crisis hit the headlines this summer. Why?
The Syrian crisis has been going on for nearly five years, but the mass movement of people out of the country really captured international attention when Syrian refugees began to arrive in Europe in the summer of 2015.

In addition to stories of overcrowded boats capsizing at sea, and dozens of people smuggled in the back of a truck who suffocated to death, the heartbreaking photos of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned along with several members of his family, sparked outrage worldwide. European nations began to debate how to best help the people trying to settle within their borders. Some countries along the route began to close access points to stem the flow of people. But, by many accounts, the exodus of migrants and refugees hasn't slowed.
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Photo: Michele Amoruso/Pacific Press/LightRocket/ Getty Images.
What are the biggest challenges right now?
Winter is a big one. Historically, fewer migrants and refugees attempt long journeys during the cold months. But the flow of people traveling by sea and by land hasn't slowed, since many refugees apparently fear the path to Europe might close by the spring.

"People think there is a window of opportunity, particularly with statements of politicians in Europe," Nahuel Arenas, Oxfam America's director of humanitarian response, told Refinery29 earlier this year. "So I think that people don't want to miss that."

But many of those people are not prepared for the harsh conditions that winter will bring. Aid organizations say they are in desperate need of warm clothing, shelter, and water. Countries in Europe and elsewhere are also grappling with how to resettle refugees and provide them with the services they need to rebuild their lives.
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Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
What can I do to help?
Refugees around the world have urgent needs, from food, warm clothing, and medicine, to school supplies and access to health care. Refinery29 has partnered with USA for UNHCR to support refugees around the world. You can make a difference with your donation here: UNrefugees.org/Refinery29.

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