Number of Syrian Refugees May Grow to Three Million by End of Year

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH-Boston. A single refugee story is heartbreaking. A person has to leave their home, not because they want to, because they have to or they might get killed. They don't know where they're going. They don't even know if they'll ever get back home again. Now multiply that by a million. That's the story of Syria. The United Nations said the number of Syrian refugees who've fled their country officially hit one million last week. Antonio Guterres, head of the UN's Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, says that could triple by the end of this year. He made the comment while on a visit to Turkey, where some 190,000 Syrians have sought refuge. Others have wound up in Lebanon and Jordan, as well as elsewhere in the Middle East and even Europe. Melissa Fleming is the UNHCR's chief spokesperson, currently in Ankara. She says Syrians who make it to one of the 17 refugee camps across Turkey get to stay in an orderly and safe place.

Melissa Fleming: The one thing nice that people tell you in the camps is, at least I'm not experiencing shelling any more. At least my kids are not hovering under the bedcovers screaming with fright. That said, most of them still have family members back in Syria. I was in a tent, tent after tent actually, where there are TVs in the tent with Al Jazeera in the background and they're all watching for news about not only about their homeland but the developments in the fighting, whether it's reached their hometown, and they're worrying very much about their relatives back home.

Werman: And so once they've been in the camp for a while, what's their mental state as they wait and they wait for these situations to change, and those situations don't change?

Fleming: I can tell you they're grateful for the refuge they've been granted in the neighboring countries, but they are traumatized, they're worried, they're concerned, and they see their country on the television pictures being obliterated, completely destroyed, and their relatives and friends gone missing. It just keeps getting worse and of course, the grievance, the worry, the fear doesn't leave them.

Werman: Melissa, I understand many refugees actually skip the camps and head straight for urban areas without being registered. Obviously that creates its own set of problems. Can you give us a sense of the number of people who've actually done that so far, and how they're living?

Fleming: Well, in Turkey, Lebanon, and in Jordan, probably at least half and all in Lebanon, of refugees are in towns and cities. It does pose greater challenges. It's more difficult to assist people because they're much more dispersed and many urban refugees have not really come forward. New development in Turkey. Before they would only really count and recognize those refugees who went to camps. In a new move they are now registering, with our assistance, refugees who are in towns and cities, enabling them to get free health care, to get aid. Many refugees feel much more comfortable in a city environment. They come from cities, the want to move to a city.

Werman: Melissa, on the one hand, as a spokesperson for the UNHCR, you have to carefully stay across these numbers of refugees, you need to know what they need, where to open new camps. But at an even more stark level for you, what does this number, one million, and the threat of three million by year's end, what does this number symbolize for you?

Fleming: It's a mirror into a country that is unraveling. The violence has become so terrible, the destruction so vast, that the country is emptying itself of its people. For those who could flee across the borders, at least they are safe. Those who remain inside, many of them are also displaced. As many as three million people inside the country have fled their homes and they're running from one place to the next. So it's really terrible and escalating violence situation inside Syria and that is the reflection on the million people who fled over the borders.

Werman: Melissa Fleming, the spokesperson for the UNHCR, speaking with us from Ankara, the Turkish capital. Thank you, Melissa.

Fleming: It was a pleasure.