Every day they come streaming over Syria’s borders by car, bus or sometimes on foot, fleeing a conflict that has ravaged their country for more than two years and claimed the lives of at least 80,000 people.
The UN says more than 1.5 million Syrians have joined the exodus according to the numbers registering with its refugee agency UNHCR, with the largest flows into neighbouring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
UNHCR regional co-ordinator Panos Moumtzis says the figures show the crisis is growing at an alarming rate.
“Refugees tell us the increased fighting and changing of control of towns and villages, in particular in conflict areas, results in more and more civilians deciding to leave. Over the past four months we have seen a rapid deterioration when compared to the previous 20 months of this conflict.”
Many Syrians, fearing the reach of President Bashar al-Assad's intelligence forces even outside Syria, have shied away from registering with bodies like UNHCR, which means the actual figures are far higher.
If the number fleeing continues to grow at such a rate, the total of refugees is estimated to reach 3.5 million, or 15 per cent of the total population of Syria, by the end of the year.
Another four million have been displaced within the country, with tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing their homes every month.
With no end to the conflict in sight, these bleak figures suggest the flow of refugees may soon amount to the biggest population movement in the region since the Palestinian exodus from Israel in 1948 (the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 resulted in some two million refugees).
Many fear the consequences of this demographic reshaping, uneasy about how it will ultimately affect the social, political and economic fabric of the states that have taken in the refugees.
Syria's Arab neighbours – Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq – are poorly equipped to deal with the influx. Most refugees end up living in rudimentary camps or lodging with local families already struggling to get by. The aid pledged by international donors has been slow to materialise, deepening the burden on the host countries.
“Providing safe water, appropriate sanitation facilities and access to health care is costly. It’s time for the key donors to wake up and face that reality,” said Rick Bauer, regional humanitarian co-ordinator of Oxfam.
“The sad reality is that the vast majority of Syrian refugees are not going home soon. It is also crystal clear that host communities in Lebanon and Jordan need urgent help.”
The most pronounced effects have been felt in Jordan, a tiny resource-poor kingdom where the issue of refugees has always been a sensitive one – more than half its population is Palestinian, and memories linger of the Black September conflict between fighters drawn from the Palestinian refugee
population and the
Jordanian government in 1970.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan alone could reach 1.2 million by the end of the year – equivalent to one-fifth of the kingdom’s population. The Jordanian government says it currently hosts more than 500,000.
Last year it opened a camp in Zaatari near its border with Syria. Conditions in Zaatari’s tent city are grim. Camp residents have rioted in protest. The constant flow of refugees has forced the Jordanians to build more facilities.
Pressure on education and health services may test the Jordanians' hospitality, particularly if refugee numbers continue to rise at current rates.
Reports this week that Jordanian border guards had shut several crossing points used by those fleeing Syria suggest that Jordan's willingness to stretch its already meagre resources is wearing thin.
Turkey, being wealthier than Jordan, has been better prepared to cope with the influx of refugees but strains are now starting to show.
According to the UN,
there are almost 350,000 refugees either registered or awaiting registration in Turkey.
In the early stages of the conflict Turkey established four refugee camps – one with container homes, the others tents – in the border area. As in Jordan, frustrations within the camps have led to rioting. The Turkish authorities also fret over the possibility of Syria’s sectarian tensions seeping over the border and upsetting its own delicate ethnic balance.
Similar anxieties exist in Lebanon, another country haunted by the experience of previous waves of refugees. Lebanon’s sectarian map is almost a mirror-image of Syria’s and its rival domestic political factions are divided over support for the Assad regime.
UN figures show more than 470,000 Syrian refugees either registered or awaiting registration in Lebanon. Lebanese officials say the true figure is closer to a million.