The number of refugees from the Syrian civil war has risen above three million, the New York Times reported referring to the United Nations refugee agency.
More than a million people have fled in the last 12 months alone, the refugee agency said, counting only those who registered as refugees. The total number is believed to be significantly higher. Countries surrounding Syria that have borne the brunt of the exodus estimate that several hundred thousand more Syrians have escaped across their frontiers seeking safety.
Lebanon, with a population of less than five million, has taken in more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees, while Jordan has 608,000 and Turkey 815,000, according to the agency, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Tens of thousands more fled to Iraq over the past three years only to face new dangers from the onslaught of Islamic militants based in Syria.
"Almost half of all Syrians have now been forced to abandon their homes and flee for their lives," the refugee agency said in a statement, noting that another six and a half million Syrians in the country had also been displaced in warfare between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and various rebel forces.
"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," António Guterres, the high commissioner for refugees, said in a statement marking the new milestone in the conflict.
His agency's staff members said they believed the number of refugees would have passed the three-million mark even sooner had not the border with Iraq been closed and the authorities in Turkey and Jordan, fearful for their own nations' security, taken measures to manage the flow of Syrians.
Moreover, there are "worrying signs," the refugee agency said, that the already perilous journey to get out of the country through fast-shifting lines of conflict was becoming harder, with fugitives forced to pay off smugglers or guards at checkpoints.
Many of those arriving were first forced to flee from village to village in Syria, said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the relief agency, pointing to the case of a Syrian woman who said she had moved 20 times before getting to Lebanon.
"These are people who are fleeing as an absolute last resort because they have nothing left; they are absolutely desperate," Ms. Fleming added. "If they're not affected by war, they've been affected by a collapsed health system or by months and months and months of being afraid."
A growing number of arrivals came needing treatment for long-term ailments like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Others also reported soaring costs for even the most basic needs.
With the sharp rise in refugee numbers, the refugee agency said that Syria had become the biggest operation in its 64-year history. That has imposed an acute financial strain on the agency, which has also become involved in a lengthening list of humanitarian emergencies, including civil strife in South Sudan and Central African Republic, and the renewed conflict in Iraq.