GENEVA (Reuters) - Growing numbers of Syrian civilians are fleeing abroad to escape conflict at home, especially in Aleppo, and Turkey is building more refugee camps in anticipation of a larger exodus, the United Nations said on Friday.
Nearly 150,000 refugees have registered in four neighboring countries since the conflict began 17 months ago, it said, while others are reaching Maghreb countries and southern Europe.
The total includes 50,227 in Turkey, where more than 6,000 Syrians arrived this week as Syria’s largest city of Aleppo came under heavy bombardment from government forces. The number of refugees registered in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq is also rising.
“There certainly in the past week has been a sharp increase in the numbers arriving in Turkey, and there many of the people are coming from Aleppo and surrounding villages,” Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a news briefing.
“Now if you look at other areas, I think that the situation is more of a steady and continued increase, but where fighting happens we tend to see the consequences,” he said.
Rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Aleppo promised a counter-attack on Friday after losing ground as residents fled in cars crammed with belongings during a lull in the fighting.
Before the battle for Aleppo began, the United Nations said an estimated 200,000 residents had fled the city, which is close to the Turkish border.
If that figure is accurate, it is not clear why the exodus did not result in a flood at the border, though the UNHCR has said it has anecdotal evidence of military roadblocks and “irregular violence” such as snipers making it a difficult journey.
Turkish authorities plan to double their capacity in order to receive up to 100,000 refugees and are building up to 13 new sites in addition to nine existing camps, Edwards said.
With the possible expansion of a camp in Jordan to take up to 150,000 refugees, Syria’s neighbors are bracing for a potential flood of people trying to get away from the fighting.
The UNHCR has appealed for Syria’s neighbors to keep their borders open, having doubled its forecast in June for the number of registered refugees this year to 185,000.
Given the current outflows, the agency is considering revising upwards its contingency planning figure, Edwards said.
In addition, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians have been uprooted within their country and need international assistance, according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and United Nations.
There are 45,869 Syrian refugees registered in Jordan, 36,841 in Lebanon and 13,730 in Iraq - which has also seen the return of 23,228 Iraqis from Syria since July 18.
“In several countries we know there to be substantial refugee numbers who have not yet registered,” Edwards said.
Many Syrians have taken temporary refuge in Lebanon, staying with relatives or in hotels, and the total in that country is far higher than the number that have asked the UNHCR for help.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said last week that it was better for the refugees to be able to live among the Lebanese population, but “at a certain moment the encampment situation might be necessary”.
Some Syrian refugees have also turned up in other countries including Algeria, Egypt and Morocco, and Evros, the Greek region that borders Turkey, he said, adding that the numbers were “really tiny” compared to the flows to Syria’s neighbors.
A fishing boat carrying 157 people, including 124 Syrians fleeing escalating violence in their homeland, was intercepted close to the southern Italian coast and towed to the port of Crotone late on Wednesday, Italian police said.
Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Additional reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Andrew Osborn