About 6 million Syrians have been torn from their homes. Two million have fled to neighboring countries, while just over 4 million have sought shelter in other parts of the country, making Syria the nation with the largest number of displaced citizens.
The growing number of refugees complicates the question U.S. lawmakers are pondering: To strike or not to strike, in response to a chemical-weapons attack that killed more than 1,400 civilians in Syria. "It is really something that, from a humanitarian standpoint, cannot be ignored, or else we cannot say, 'Never again,' " said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., of the attacks.
Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., who thinks a U.S. military strike won't stop Bashar al-Assad's regime, took issue with such a "humanitarian standpoint." "Now we're going to have a debate about humanitarian bombing and humanitarian missile strikes," he told MSNBC's Thomas Roberts on Tuesday. "Why don't we have a debate about doing something to keep the 2 million refugees that are across the border in Jordan and Turkey? We can take that billion dollars and give some relief to them."
Grayson was referring to the monthly cost of maintaining a no-fly zone over Syria, according to estimates that Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey gave last month.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that humanitarian agencies receive less than half of the funds required to provide refugees with basics such as food, clothes, and shelter. Last month, the President Obama authorized $195 million in food and other humanitarian aid for Syria, bringing America's total contribution since the conflict began to more than $1 billion. In a joint press conference with the prime minister of Sweden on Wednesday, Obama said the U.S. will continue these efforts. But the use of military force could cripple the distribution of humanitarian aid to displaced Syrians, a task that gets more difficult as the conflict goes on.
It's safe to say that if another chemical attack occurs, the number of refugees would continue to climb. But so would military intervention in Syria. Any military strike, however limited in scope and duration, could drive out people who are afraid of being caught in the crossfire. It could also concentrate refugees into specific areas inside Syria's borders, which the government could target in retaliation to U.S. involvement.
Meanwhile, Syria's neighbors are feeling the pressure of supporting thousands of newcomers in already struggling economies and infrastructure. Officials from Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey are meeting with the UNHCR on Wednesday to ask for more financial support.
Syrian refugees are not eligible to seek admission into the United States through the refugee admissions program. But this week, Sweden became the first country in the European Union to offer permanent residency to Syrian refugees in the wake of escalating conflict.
The number of displaced Syrians now almost equals one-third of the country's population. As talks about a military strike continue in Washington, the fate of the 5,000 Syrians who flee the country every day remains unclear.