Number of Syrian refugees registered in region passes half a million

Briefing Notes, 11 December 2012

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 11 December 2012, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

More than half a million Syrian refugees have now been registered or are awaiting registration in the four surrounding countries and North Africa, and the numbers are currently climbing by more than 3,000 per day.

According to UNHCR's latest figures from Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and North Africa, 509,559 Syrians are either already registered (425,160) or in the process of being registered (84,399).

Contrary to public perceptions, only about 40 per cent of registered Syrian refugees region-wide actually live in refugee camps. The majority live outside camps, often in rental housing, with host families, or in various types of collective centres and renovated accommodation.

In Lebanon and North Africa, for example, there are no camps. Instead, Syrian refugees live in both urban and rural communities. In Jordan, only 24 per cent live in camps. In Iraq, half are in camps. And in Turkey, 100 per cent are in government-run camps.

There are currently 14 camps in Turkey, three in Iraq and three in Jordan.

As of yesterday, the latest figures of registered Syrian refugees or those awaiting registration in each country are: Lebanon, 154,387; Jordan, 142,664; Turkey, 136,319; Iraq, 64,449; and North Africa, 11,740.

In addition to those already registered or awaiting registration, most of these neighbouring countries and North Africa also have large numbers of Syrians who have yet not come forward to seek help. Jordan estimates, for example, that it has some 100,000 who are not registered. Turkey estimates there are more than 70,000 outside camps, while Egypt is estimating a similar number there. Lebanon also estimates that it has tens of thousands who have not yet registered.

Since the beginning of November, the number of registered refugees region-wide has risen by about 3,200 a day, including both new arrivals from Syria and those who had already been in the asylum countries for some time but had not sought help through registration. The numbers of those struggling to live on the local economy and who eventually come forward to register are expected to increase as the conflict in Syria continues, resources are depleted and host communities and families can no longer support them.

In the case of Jordan, close to 1000 Syrian refugees have crossed during the past two nights. Syrian refugees arriving during recent bad weather, reached Jordan with soaked clothing and mud-covered shoes due to heavy rainfall. UNHCR protection teams described the night time arrivals as fearful, freezing, and without proper winter clothing. UNHCR and partners have welcomed some 2,500 Syrian refugees to the Za'atri camp in the past week with blankets, sleeping mats and a high energy meal, with doctors responding to the medical needs of the newly arrived.

UNHCR observed in Jordan an increase in elderly arrivals and children, with 60 per cent of recent arrivals under the age of 18, including 22 new born infants during the night of the 9th of December, and also including a number of unaccompanied minors. The eldest arrival was an 85-year-old woman, who had fled with her grandchildren.

As part of efforts to help refugees deal with the winter cold, UNHCR and humanitarian partners are in the process of distributing some 50,000 high thermal blankets at Za'atri. This is in addition to some 62,000 blankets that have already been distributed in Za'atri to date. On 10 December, UNHCR's partner in the winterization efforts, Norwegian Refugee Council, received the first batch of gas heaters on site, which will be a welcome addition to the new porches being installed as temperatures continue to drop.

UNHCR is stepping up its outreach activities in the region to provide registration and help to those who need it. This is not easy, given the wide dispersal of the Syrian refugees in some areas. In Lebanon, for example, they are spread across some 500 municipalities, some of them quite remote.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Amman: Ron Redmond (Regional Spokesman) on mobile +962 79 982 5867
  • Tala Kattan on mobile: +962 79 978 3186
  • Aoife McDonnell on mobile: +962 795 450 379
  • In Geneva: Melissa Fleming on mobile: +41 79 557 9122
  • Adrian Edwards on mobile: +41 79 557 9120
  • At the Turkish border: Mohammed Abu Asaker (Regional Spokesman, Arabic) on mobile + 971 50 621 3552
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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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