Number of Syrian refugees tops million mark: U.N.

BERLIN The number of Syrians who have fled their war-ravaged country and are seeking assistance has now topped the one million mark, the United Nations' refugee agency said Wednesday.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said in a statement released in Geneva that the 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 that time its regional response plan was only 25 percent funded, and it is now in the process of adjusting it in light of the new figures, Guterres said.

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