BEIRUT -- The number of Syrians who have fled their homeland during the almost two years of violence has officially exceeded 1 million, the United Nations said Wednesday.
The milestone had long been anticipated as the influx of refugees has continued inexorably, straining the resources of neighboring nations, especially Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
Inside Syria, the violence is said to have displaced an additional 2 million-plus people from their homes.
Aid groups and international observers have been sounding alarms for months about what they call a humanitarian catastrophe, warnings that were repeated Wednesday once the 1-million mark had been reached.
In fact, officials say many more than 1 million people have fled Syria; the official figures only include those who have formally registered with the U.N. as refugees or are in the process of registering. Large numbers have not registered.
Many have escaped Syria traumatized from the war, having lost relatives in the violence, and without possessions beyond the clothes on their backs. About half of the refugees are children, most younger than 11, the U.N. said. Many find shelter in formal refugee camps close to Syria's borders, but most have settled in communities, struggling to find work and pay the rent.
"With a million people in flight, millions more displaced internally, and thousands of people continuing to cross the border every day, Syria is spiraling toward full-scale disaster," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Gutierres said in a statement. "We are doing everything we can to help, but the international humanitarian response capacity is dangerously stretched. This tragedy has to be stopped."
A major fear is that the refugee influx could contribute to instability in neighboring nations such as Lebanon and Iraq, which have fragile political systems. Caring for the newcomers has been an imposing burden for international aid groups and host nations.
"These countries should not only be recognized for their unstinting commitment to keeping their borders open for Syrian refugees, they should be massively supported as well," Gutierres said.
Though neighboring nations have received most refugees, many Syrians have fled further afield, to places such as Egypt, Algeria and Europe.
The Syrian conflict erupted almost two years ago with anti-government protests and soon became an all-out armed rebellion against the government of President Bashar Assad. As many as 70,000 have died, according to the U.N. Intense diplomatic efforts to find a solution have so far failed to achieve a cease-fire.