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Key dates

Refugee flow

Graphic: Monthly totals of refugees from Syria

1. March 2011: Protests begin

The first waves of refugees began leaving Syria amid a government crackdown on street protests. Anti-government demonstrations began in March in the southern city of Deraa following the arrest and torture of a group of teenagers who painted revolutionary slogans on a wall. By July, hundreds of thousands were taking to the streets. Government forces responded with large-scale military operations, but many of those affected sought safety with friends and relatives within the country’s borders at this time.

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2. March 2012: Conflict spreads

Protests were soon overshadowed by the emerging insurgency and increasing numbers of Syrians began to flee affected areas. Official figures show residents of Homs were the first to depart in large numbers early in 2012 when government troops stepped up their bombardment of rebel-held areas of the city. A significant number of people also began to leave from majority Sunni Arab region of Deraa, the scene of violence from early in the uprising.

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3. Aug 2012: Rebels gain ground

Damascus and northern Aleppo province saw growing numbers of people leave the country as fighting spread to the capital and the country’s second city intensified. UNHCR figures show people also continued to flee Deraa and Homs in large numbers. Between May and July a number of massacres were reported, including in Homs and Hama provinces - from where increasing numbers of residents would leave in the coming months.

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4. Dec 2012: Rebels extend gains

As opposition forces became more organised and numbers swelled, they made significant gains on the outskirts of Damascus and in northern and eastern Syria. The Syrian regime was also showing increasing signs of desperation, bombing hostile areas of the capital and firing missiles at towns and districts held by rebels in and around the second city of Aleppo - half of which was in rebel hands. As a result, the number of people fleeing Aleppo and the Damascus area increased in subsequent months.

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5. March 2013: Regime recaptures areas

The beginning of 2013 saw growing numbers of people flee. Deraa, Homs, Aleppo and Damascus saw most leave. Government forces, boosted by fighters from the Lebanese Shia Islamist movement Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militias, recaptured key areas and reports emerged that chemical weapons had been used. Violence escalated in Deraa in particular, from where almost 10,000 people left in the three months to March. Homs and Aleppo saw upwards of 75,000 leave during the same period, amid a major Syrian army offensive.

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6. Sept 2013: Border crossing opens

After a drop in the mid-2013, the number of refugees registered leaving Syria rose again in September. Tens of thousands had entered Iraq in August after a pontoon bridge was completed over the river border. Many were Kurds fleeing government forces and fighting between Islamist rebels and Kurdish groups. Meanwhile, international debate over the use of chemical weapons intensified following a large-scale attack. Punitive military strikes were averted after the Syrian government agreed to the destruction of its chemical weapons based on a US-Russian deal.

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7. Feb 2014: Regime gains upper hand

Refugee numbers rose again between November and February after a drop in October following the agreement over the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. But, as the Syrian army recaptured a number of towns and infighting surged among rebels, Syrians continued to leave. In March, government forces backed by Hezbollah fighters retook key towns on the Lebanese border, cutting off key rebel supply routes. The regime’s “barrel bombing” of Aleppo and “starvation sieges” on Homs and suburbs of Damascus also forced people to leave.

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8. April 2014: Homs rebels buckle

Tens of thousands continued to leave in early 2014. By April, government forces had retaken most opposition areas of Homs - the last rebel stronghold. Opposition fighters had been forced into ever smaller areas and denied access to food and medicine - a tactic of “surrender or starve”. They finally buckled and hundreds of rebels left the city during a brief ceasefire in early May. Despite the ongoing conflict, Syria is holding presidential elections on 3 June. The opposition has dismissed the poll, which Mr Assad is widely expected to win, as a farce.

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