Syria has been in a state of civil war since 2011, which has seen mass migration of its people into bordering countries and, to some extent, onto Europe. Syria shares borders with Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Israel. 

In 2012 the population of Syria was 22 million. The Alawite Assad family has ruled Syria since 1970, with Bashar al-Assad succeeding his father, Hafez al-Assad, as president in 2000.

Syria is home to a diverse range of ethnic and religious groups, the majority of the population (74%) being Sunni Muslim. The main minority groups in Syria are: Alawi Muslims (2.1 million); Christians of various denominations (1.9 million); Iraqi refugees (1.5 - 2 million); and Kurds (2 - 2.5 million).

The conflict

Following unrest across regional countries such as Egypt and Libya, disquiet over political leadership erupted in to waves of pro-democracy demonstrations, known as the Arab Spring.

The Assad regime in Syria was not unaffected by this regional uprising, amid dissatisfaction the regime had not delivered economic reform or improved political freedoms. In response, demonstrations were oppressed with force, triggering nation-wide protest and sparking conflict between the regime and its opposers.

Over time different opposition groups, based on ethnic or religious factions, began to rebel against the Assad regime. By 2012, the uprising against Assad had escalated to a sectarian conflict with Sunni rebels opposing with the Alawite-leaning regime. What began as peaceful anti-government protests had escalated into a civil war.

By 2013, the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) emerged in Syria and gained control of much of the northern half of the country, capitalising on the chaos and conflict.

All sides of the conflict have allegedly used violent means to gain control over territory. Violations of international human rights law by multiple actors in this conflict has been documented, including the use of chemical weapons. Since the war began, around 250,000 people have been killed.

While discrimination and armed attack has in many cases been targeted towards particular religious groups or communities, the scale of the conflict has meant that no group or community has been untouched. All religious and ethnic communities within Syria continue to be affected by this conflict.

The refugee crisis

Over half of Syria’s population of 22 million is currently displaced inside or outside the country. The United Nations reported that the number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people has exceeded 50 million, the first time since World War II. The Syrian civil war has been a large contributor to this global crisis.

Syria has become the largest source country of refugees in the world, surpassing Afghanistan and Somalia. With the conflict continuing to intensify, the number of people moving within Syria and across the region continues to grow.

By the end of 2014, an estimated 7.6 million people were internally displaced in Syria living in official or makeshift camps along the country’s borders or in villages and towns where they have been able to find shelter. With camps being insecure and unprotected, internally displaced people are turning to migration in the region and further afield to Europe.

In 2015, 4.01 million people are registered as refugees with UNHCR, with 95 per cent in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Lebanon and Jordan now have the highest numbers of refugees per capita worldwide. Given the scale of need, refugee camps in neighbouring countries have become overcrowded and vastly under-resourced, forcing thousands of people to live in impoverished conditions.

Under these circumstances, a significant influx of asylum seekers have been migrating to Europe to seek safety and security.   Since January 2015, there have been over 680,000 arrivals into Europe by sea, 53% of these are from Syria. This influx has caused a crisis in Europe’s capacity to respond to this unprecedented entry of refugees into Europe.

Australia and Syrian refugees

Since 2011, the Australian Government has provided $190 million humanitarian aid funding. This has included assistance both to people inside Syria as well as support to refugees and host communities in neighbouring countries.

Syrian asylum seekers arriving by boat are treated as all other irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs). Syrians arriving by boat are also subject to offshore detention on Papua New Guinea and Nauru. The number of Syrian asylum seekers in detention is unknown.

In 2013–14, 1007 people born in Syria were granted refugee visas through the Humanitarian Program, the fourth largest group by country after Afghanistan, Iraq and Myanmar.

In 2013, the Australian Government allocated 500 permanent resettlement places under the Refugee category of the 2013–14 programme to Syrian refugees, with provision for more Syrians to enter Australia through the Special Humanitarian Programme.

In an effort to respond to the refugee crisis unfolding in the Middle East and Europe, in July 2015 the Australian Government committed to providing a one-off intake of 12,000 additional humanitarian places available for people displaced by the conflict in Syria and Iraq. This is on top of the current 13,750 places as part of Australia’s existing Humanitarian Program

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Fact Sheet - Humanitarian Response to the Syria Crisis (2015)

Department of Immigration and Border Protection: Australia's Offshore Humanitarian Programme 2013-14 (2014) 

European Commission, EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection: Syria Fact Sheet (2015)

Kaldor Centre, University of New South Wales, Factsheet: Refugees from Syria (2015)

Syria Deeply: Background Information (accessed October 2015)

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR):  Data portal (accessed October 2015)

UNHCR: Global Trends (2014)

UNHCR RefWorld: World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples - Syria (2015)