U.N.: Syrian refugee figure hits 1 million

Mar 06, 2013, 6:09 AM EST
FILE - Newly arrived Syrian refugees wait for their turn to receive a mattress, blankets and other supplies, and to be assigned to tents, at the Zaatari Syrian refugees camp in Mafraq, near the Syrian border with Jordan, in this Jan. 28, 2013 file photo.
(AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon, File)

BEIRUT (AP) — The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country and are seeking assistance has now topped the 1 million mark, the U.N. refugee agency said Wednesday, warning that Syria is heading towards a "full-scale disaster."

The announcement came as troops and rebels fought street battles in Syria's strategic northern city of Raqqa, and regime forces sent reinforcements in an attempt to push out opposition gunmen who now control most of the city, activists said.

Syria's two-year crisis has killed tens of thousands, left many more wounded and also internally displaced more than 2 million people.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said in a statement released in Geneva that the 1 million figure is based on reports from his agency's field offices in neighboring countries that have provided refuge for Syrians escaping the civil war.

"With a million people in flight, millions more displaced internally, and thousands of people continuing to cross the border every day, Syria is spiraling towards full-scale disaster," Guterres said.

Syria's uprising began in March 2011 with protests against President Bashar Assad's authoritarian rule. When the government cracked down on demonstrators, the opposition took up arms and the conflict turned into a full-blown civil war. The United Nations estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed.

The relentless violence also has devastated many cities and forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians to seek refuge abroad.

Guterres said the number of refugees has swelled dramatically this year, with most Syrians pouring into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. More than 400,000 people have become refugees since Jan. 1, and often arrive in neighboring countries "traumatized, without possessions and having lost members of their families," he said.

Around half are children; the majority under age 11.

"We are doing everything we can to help, but the international humanitarian response capacity is dangerously stretched," he said. "This tragedy has to be stopped."

The U.N. in December estimated that 1.1 million Syrian refugees would arrive in neighboring countries by the end of June this year. At the time, the agency's regional response plan was only 25 percent funded, and it is now in the process of adjusting that in light of the new figures, Guterres said.

In Beirut, Panos Moumtzis, the UNHCR regional coordinator for Syrian refugees, said that 7,000 Syrians have been crossing into neighboring countries every day since the fighting escalated in December.

This has stretched the resources of states like Lebanon and Jordan, and has made the refugee crisis one of the fastest deteriorating situations in decades, he said.

"When you stand at the border crossing, you see this human river flowing in, day and night," Moumtzis told The Associated Press after inspecting UNHCR's registration centers at border crossings in Lebanon.

He said the U.N. refugee agency badly needs money to help host countries cope and manage the refugee population, adding that of the $1 billion for aiding Syrian refugees in neighboring countries that was pledged at the Kuwait donor conference in January, only $200 million has come through.

"We are getting desperate," Moumtzis said, adding that the agency is able to provide Syrians fleeing violence with a bare minimum: a tent, a blanket, a sleeping mat, 2,000 calories a day and 20 liters of water a day.

"We are going hand to mouth, constantly trying to catch up in a crisis that is complex and dangerous because it has a potential to turn into a regional conflict," Moumtzis said.

Also Wednesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees said Syrian warplanes bombarded rebel-held areas in Raqqa as the fighting intensified around the Military Intelligence headquarters in the city.

Rebels were able to capture most of the city on Monday, tearing down a giant statue of Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, as well as giant posters of the leader in the city. The rebels are now battling pockets of government troops in Raqqa, struggling to crush the remaining government holdouts in the city of 500,000 people on the Euphrates River, activists said.

Syria's pro-government daily Al-Watan said "terrorists" — a term the regime uses for rebels — have occupied several government buildings in the city. It also confirmed activists' reports that that the rebels captured Raqqa's governor, Hassan Jlali, and the head of the ruling Baath party's branch, Salman al-Salman.

Huge military reinforcements have reached the outskirts of al-Raqqa and "are preparing to enter the city to liberate it and restore security and stability," al-Watan said.

The Observatory said army reinforcements coming from the nearby town of Tabqa, also known as Thawra, clashed with rebels on the way to Raqqa. It also reported that regime forces are attacking several neighborhoods in the central city of Homs, which the rebels have been holding for more than a year.


Rising reported from Berlin. Associated Press writers Robert H. Reid in Berlin and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this story.