The Syrian Refugee Crisis:

A Brief History

The uprising in Syria that has left nearly 11 million refugees displaced is just one in a string of turbulent conflicts that have beleaguered the region.

In the minds of many Canadians, the Syrian refugee crisis is a recent issue.

The driving force behind the world becoming aware of the wave of refugees flooding into Eastern Europe was a particularly powerful image of the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, who had drowned and washed up onto a beach in Turkey in early September 2015.


This is not the case.


As Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University, points out, “This is not new. This refugee crisis has been going on for years. And it’s not just from Syria, and it’s not just Iraq, a lot of it is simple economic migration from North Africa.”


“Where it became an issue in Canadian politics was the photo of the dead boy on the beach in Turkey and the Canadian connection that that had,” Bratt said. “I mean the photo went worldwide, it was not exclusive to Canada, but when there was an allegation that his parents or his father had been rejected for refugee status in Canada—which was erroneous—but it did lead to a firestorm, and it did become a political issue in the middle of an election campaign.”


The truth, Bratt said, was that the dead boy’s uncle had applied, and his application was incomplete. So, the application wasn’t necessarily denied, Immigration Canada just needed more information before granting refugee status to the family. The issue got “compounded by a very bad interview that the immigration minister, Chris Alexander, gave on television, and it’s become a hot potato.” An interview with CBC in which Alexander denied receiving any application at all, even though he was hand-delivered a letter from the boy’s family who lived in B.C.


Another falsehood is that ISIS is to blame for the human flood of displaced people from the Middle East. “The refugees did not start originally—even the Iraqi-Syrian ones—from ISIS. There has been a civil war going on in Syria for several years. President Al-Assad had gassed and used chemical weapons on his own people, and that created massive refugee flows. So, there’s a lot to unpack here,” said Bratt.


“It is the largest mass movement of people since the end of the second World War,” said Bratt.  “We’re talking millions of people.”


Roughly 11 million people to be more precise, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).


The civil war that erupted in Syria in 2011 is just one knot in a long string of conflicts that has locked the country and the entire region in turmoil since before Hafez al-Assad, who was a defense minister in the 60’s, seized control of the government and became president in 1971



The near-constant fighting and turmoil led to very uncertain living conditions for many Syrian people. Many left their homes, seeking asylum in more stable, humanitarian countries.


Sam Nammoura was one of those immigrants, who describes Syria under the Assad regime in the 80s as “a big prison.”


“Everybody knows about ‘80, ‘81, ‘82 in Syria there was kind of like a revolution/coup or a power struggle between the Black Party—the Assad regime—and the oppositions in general, mainly Brotherhood, the Muslim Brotherhood. After they crushed the oppositions at that time, Assad really ruled the country with an iron fist,” said Nammoura.


“Just to give you a slight idea about how dire the situation was, if I want to buy toilet paper I have to go to a so called place owned by the government and wait in line for almost two hours just to buy one roll. Everything was so dictated by the government at that time,” he said.


Nammoura described how many of his friends “disappeared” for having views that opposed the oppressive Assad regime.


Eventually, Nammoura was forced to flee the country in secret. 



Since Bashar al-Assad took over in 2000, things have gotten a lot worse for Syrians. The most recent rebellion that began in 2011 has left roughly 11 million Syrians displaced, desperately seeking asylum in neighbouring countries—many of whom have shut their borders—and western countries. Accusations of chemical weapon use, mass murder and terror have been flung at Assad, and many of the refugees brave enough to tell their stories are confirming the horrors that are taking place in Syria.


The future of the country is uncertain, and many more are sure to die as the violence continues.

For those who have made it out, the ordeal of adjusting to life in an alien country is just beginning.

Based on BBC timeline. Syria's line of events since 1970