GENEVA – The civil war in Syria has forced 3 million people out of the country, including more than a million people who fled in the past year, creating a crisis that the U.N. refugee agency said requires the biggest operation in its 64-year history.
The tragic milestone means that about one of every eight Syrians has fled across the borders, and 6.5 million others have been displaced within Syria since the conflict began in March 2011, the Geneva-based agency said. More than half of all those uprooted are children, it said.
Syria had a prewar population of 23 million.
"The Syria 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," said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.
The agency had described the 3 million as a record, but later qualified that the Syrian crisis was record-breaking in terms of the unprecedented size and scope of the $3.74 billion operation needed to care for the refugees.
The recent surge in fighting appears to be worsening the already desperate situation for Syrian refugees, the agency said, as the extremist Islamic State group expands its control of broad areas straddling the Syria-Iraq border and terrorizes rivals and civilians in both countries.
According to the agency, many of the new arrivals in Jordan come from Syria's northern province of Aleppo and the northeastern region of Raqqa, a stronghold of the group. An independent U.N. commission says the group is systematically carrying out widespread bombings, beheadings and mass killings that amount to crimes against humanity in both areas.
"Three million refugees is not just another statistic. It is a searing indictment of our collective failure to end the war in Syria," Angelina Jolie, the U.N.'s refugee agency special envoy, said in a statement following the release of the report.
The commission investigating potential war crimes in Syria said on Wednesday that the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad likely used chlorine gas to attack civilians, who are bearing the brunt of a civil war that has killed more than 190,000 people and destabilized the region.
The massive numbers of Syrians fleeing the civil war has stretched the resources of neighboring countries and raised fears of violence spreading in the region. But some fear the world's attention is getting diverted.
"With so many crises erupting simultaneously around us, with so much suffering, there is a risk that the victims of the Syrian crisis and their needs will slip from the public eye," said Kristalina Georgieva, aid chief for the European Union, regarding the 3 million Syrian refugees.
The U.N. estimates there are nearly 35,000 people awaiting registration as refugees, and hundreds of thousands who are not registered.
The refugee agency and other aid groups say an increasing number of families are arriving in other countries in shockingly poor condition, exhausted and scared and with almost no financial savings left after having been on the run for a year or more.
In eastern Jordan, for example, the agency says refugees crossing the desert are forced to pay smugglers $100 per person or more to be taken to safety.
As of Friday, Lebanon had 1,176,971 Syrian refugees, the single highest number. Turkey had 832,508; Jordan 613,252; Iraq 215,369; Egypt 139,090; and North Africa 23,367.