Many Canadians remain uninformed about the Syrian refugee crisis.

We'd like to help fix that. 

We've built a simple yet comprehensive introduction to what you need to know about the largest movement of refugees since the Second World War.

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The Syrian refugee crisis is a massive movement of people from Syria to neighbouring nations in the Middle East, Europe, and the world. Nearly 13.5 million Syrians have been displaced since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.


In essence, the Civil War began as an uprising of the Syrian people against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, yet has evolved into a complex geopolitical conflict. For an in-depth look at the Syrian Civil War, click here.


Refugees are usually categorized into one group, but it is important to understand the unique challenges facing refugees at different stages of their experience.

Generally, you can think of the Syrian refugee crisis as referring to four distinct groups:



Internally Displaced Persons

This refers to Syrians who have been forced to leave their homes, but who remain in Syria.

The UNHCR estimates that 6.5 million Syrians, including 2.8 million children, are internally displaced. These people face not only the insecurity of leaving home with few to no possessions, but also the constant threat of the Syrian Civil War.

What aid is this group receiving?

Unfortunately, very little. Those who are internally displaced are the most difficult to help, as the deterioration of Syrian civil institutions and infrastructure ensures that foreign governmental and non-governmental organizations have little resources and few partners on the ground.

When they are able to help, aid workers are often at significant risk - click here to read about a 2016 attack on a United Nations aid convoy in Syria.

Why don't they leave?

Due to the various groups at war, fleeing Syria is incredibly difficult and dangerous. Moving within Syria often involves crossing battle lines, meaning that Syrian families are unable to leave. For instance, you may have heard of the siege of Aleppo, the largest city in Syria - government forces surrounded the city, making it impossible for citizens to leave without fear of being killed.

Although the Siege of Aleppo is over, with government forces now in control of the city, the case still provides an understanding of how conflict can limit movement - click here to learn more.

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Temporary Resettlement in the Middle East

Contrary to popular belief, most Syrian refugees are not migrating to the West.

Rather, 5 million Syrians are residing in nations neighbouring Syria in either refugee camps or urban settlements, with Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan hosting the greatest number.

Approximately half a million refugees currently live in camps run by the UNHCR or local government. The largest Syrian refugee camp in the world, Zaatari, is located in Jordan and is home to nearly 80,000 refugees - learn more about the Zaatari refugee camp here. 

The remaining 4.5 million Syrians live in cities among the citizens of the host country.  

What is life in a refugee camp really like?

"Camps keep refugees alive, but they prevent them from living." Refugee camps are intended to be short-term solutions, yet the ongoing Syrian Civil War has forced families to remain in such camps for years as opposed to weeks.

Generally, refugees have access to necessary services provided by NGOs – in Zaatari, for instance, access to food, water, and proper sanitation is provided by organizations such as the UN and WFP. Some camps, however, are overcrowded and underfunded, leading to a lack of basic living conditions.

What issues arise in refugee camps?

Think of life in a refugee camp as living in a state of dependency: refugees are largely unable to work, are dependent on foreign aid, and therefore have little opportunity to help themselves. Many refugees are grateful for the safety of the camp, but are frustrated by the limitations of life in a refugee camp.

Many refugees remain in camps due to their hope that the Syrian Civil War will end, allowing them to return home. A minority of refugees, however, leave their camp and begin the dangerous path to the West to seek a better life.

Refugees In-Motion

A minority - roughly 10% of refugees who have left Syria - undertake the long journey from Syria to Europe, with many aiming to reach refugee-welcoming nations such as Germany. 

There are two major routes to Europe: first, by sea, refugees may travel to southern Greece or Italy and then work their way north. Second, refugees may travel on foot over 3,000 KM through Turkey and Eastern Europe. Both routes are incredibly dangerous, and have become increasingly limited as European governments stop refugee movement.   

Travelling by Sea

There are few legal means of travelling to Europe from Syria, forcing refugees to turn to human smugglers. For a fee, smugglers load not only Syrian refugees, but also migrants from Afghanistan, Somalia, and Eritrea, onto faulty boats and set them to sea. These boats are purposefully overcrowded, leading to a strong chance that the boat will capsize.

In 2016 alone, the UNHCR estimates that 5,079 migrants lost their lives at sea. The Italian and Greek Coast Guard, as well as NGOs, attempt to respond to distress calls before it is too late. Both The Economist and CNN have great videos outlining the dangerous rescue process. Fewer refugees are now travelling by sea, both due to the dangers of the journey as well as the controversial EU-Turkey deal - see our Common Questions section for details on the deal.

The Journey by Land

Most Syrian refugees are now travelling by land. Smugglers are a threat here as well, with refugees being packed into small trucks that may lead to egregious losses of life. If refugees are able to reach Europe, they may have their route limited due to political circumstances - several European nations do not want refugees entering their country, as evidenced by Hungary substantially limiting entry for refugees.

With little access to food and safe shelter, refugees are incredibly vulnerable during this journey. It is important to note that attempts to stop the inflow of refugees are often counter-productive, as by forcing refugees to choose illegal means of migration such as human smugglers, the risk posed to the lives of refugees is only magnified.

Resettled Refugees

After a long and dangerous journey, refugees reach the West and seek asylum.

However, Western nations have had incredibly varying responses to refugees, with political rhetoric ranging from welcoming to isolationist. Even in nations that grant refugees asylum status, Syrians often face new challenges involved with adjusting to a completely different culture. 

Nations accepting the most refugees

Germany: Population: 81.4 Million // Syrian Refugees: 1.2 Million

Syrian Refugees as a Percentage of the Total Population: 1.5%

Considered the global leader for welcoming Syrian refugees, Germany began to implement an open-border policy in 2015. This policy has largely had positive effects, although a series of terrorist attacks conducted by Islamist extremists, not refugees, has resulted in criticism from conservative voices in Germany.

Sweden: Population: 9.7 Million // Syrian Refugees: 190,000

Syrian Refugees as a Percentage of the Total Population: 2%

Sweden has offered immense support for a country with such a small population. However, given that other EU nations refuse to offer similar support, Sweden has become increasingly strained in its efforts to help.

Click here to learn more about Canada's response to the crisis.

Nations accepting below their capacity

Wealthy nations seen as accepting under their "fair share" of refugees include:

United States - Population: 321.4 Million // Syrian Refugees: 18,000

Syrian Refugees as a Percentage of the Total Population: 0.01%

Increasingly anti-immigrant rhetoric, heightened during the 2016 Presidential Election, has limited the acceptance of Syrian refugees. Many criticize the US for not using its ample resources to help in the crisis, but US policy is unlikely to change under President Donald Trump.

United Kingdom - Population: 65.1 Million // Syrian Refugees: 4,500

Syrian Refugees as a Percentage of the Total Population: 0.01%

British PM Theresa May has ensured that the UK remains opposed to accepting more refugees. However, the UK has committed to donating over one billion pounds to help refugees in the Middle East, a positive sign.


Refugee Figures: UNHCR

Reality in Syria: BBC

Number of Refugees in Refugee Camps and Cities: UNHCR

Refugees in the Middle East: World Vision

Organizations Providing Aid: World Food Programme

Percentage of Refugees Going to Europe: The Globe and Mail

Travelling by Sea: UNHCR

Travelling by Land: World Vision

Germany Refugee Information: The Independent

Sweden Refugee Information: Foreign Policy

US Refugee Information: Migration Policy Institute

UK Refugee Information: The Independent