A Primer for Teachers: Syria’s Refugees

Important Questions and Answers about the Syrian Refugee Crisis for Educators

Migrants in Bregana, Croatia, near the border with Slovenia. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times. Sept 20, 2015.

  1. What led to the crisis? In 2011, Syrian security forces began responding to peaceful protests against the repressive Bashar Al-Assad regime with violence and gunfire, killing significant numbers of people. Civilians began defending themselves, and by 2013, hard-line Sunni Islamists had become some of the most effective anti-Assad fighters, supported by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Iran entered the fray as its Shia government backed Assad with cash, weapons, and soldiers. Meanwhile, a Sunni extremist group known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had been mostly defeated in 2007, was rebuilding itself and becoming active in the fight against Assad, eventually extending its reach into northern Iraq under the new name, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. By 2014, Syria was divided between government, rebel, ISIS, and Kurdish (an ethnic minority in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria that has long sought its own independent state) forces. Civilians have been affected tremendously with various groups being specifically targeted for their ethnic or religious identity. Source 1, source 2.
  1. How many Syrians have been impacted by the civil war? Since 2011, almost 12 million people, equivalent to half of the Syrian population, have been displaced by the conflict, including 7.6 million internally displaced people within Syria.Their homes and schools have been bombed out of existence by President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. Civilian lives have been further imperiled by the Islamic State and terrorism. Many have been forced to flee to other parts of Syria or seek refuge in neighboring countries, and beyond. Source.
  1. Who is fleeing Syria? The total number of UNHCR Registered Syrian Refugees is 4,086,760 as of September 15, 2015. This figure includes 2.1 million Syrians registered by UNHCR* in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, 1.9 million Syrians registered by the Government of Turkey, as well as more than 24,000 Syrian refugees registered in North Africa. These people include ethnic and religious minorities, Palestinian refugees, the educated professional class, and anyone else who has been a target, for whatever reason, of either the Islamic State’s draconian ideology, Assad attacks, or the various ensuing conflicts between them and other players involved. Source.
  1. Why are these people seeking asylum? During a September 2015 visit to Germany to meet with his counterparts, Secretary of State John Kerry asked a group of refugees what was behind the surge of migrants in recent weeks. They responded that they had despaired of being able to return home, and that life in refugee camps was becoming more difficult as food rations were cut back. One woman stated that the “reason people are coming now is because they [have given] up hope completely.” Host countries in the Middle East have seen their resources stretched to the limits. Essential needs like food, housing, and social services are becoming scarcer for citizens and refugees alike. Competition for resources and jobs has led to tensions between the local populations and fleeing communities. People are realizing that this is not a temporary conflict that they can ride out in over-saturated and under-supplied refugee camps, and are seeking greater security and stability elsewhere. Source.
  1. How many Syrian refugees is the United States currently hosting? The United States has taken in only about 1,500 Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict there more than four years ago. The three largest groups of refugees admitted last year (2014) were from Iraq, Somalia and Bhutan. Syrians were at the bottom of the list of nationalities. Source.
  1. Why has the United States not accepted more Syrian refugees? The United States is not equipped to respond to a humanitarian disaster of this scale. There are annual quotas on numbers of immigrants from different countries that cannot be exceeded, as well as budget constraints. Vetting requirements established after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks limit the scope and speed of the response. Concerns that Muslims from the Middle East pose a potential threat to American security has led to divisive public and political opinion. This fear has been exacerbated by recent attacks by radicalized Muslims in Paris (October 2015) and San Bernardino, CA (November 2015). In the meantime, the European Union and its member states have struggled to keep up with the huge influx of asylum seeker, with Greece, Hungary, Germany, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Austria among the most heavily impacted.
  1. What are the most popular host countries for Syrian refugees? 

Additional resources:

Life in a Refugee Camp, As Seen by Children by Anna Lukacs, National Geographic. Syrian refugee children use photography to capture their new reality. Below, a girl takes refuge in one of the few green spaces at the Kawergosk camp in Iraq. (Photo credit: Nalin Bashar). Published December 
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