U.N. Calls Syrian Refugee Crisis 'Biggest Humanitarian Emergency of our Era'

The number of Syrians displaced by conflict reached 3 million, according to the United Nations.

As of Friday, 3 million Syrian refugees have fled their country to escape the civil war there, in what U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres called "the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era."

The grim milestone comes a day after President Obama indicated that U.S. action in Syria is not imminent. "We don't have a strategy yet," he said. "I think what I've seen in some of the news reports suggests that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we're at than we currently are." Press Secretary Josh Earnest later clarified that the president's comment applied only to Syria. Earlier this week, an anonymous U.S. official told the Associated Press that Obama had approved surveillance flights over Syria, which would provide intelligence for any possible military action in the country.

Recent developments have accelerated the rate of refugees leaving Syria, as increasingly extreme Islamist groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Jabhat al-Nusra consolidate power and expand their reach. The number of Syrian refugees abroad doubled in the past year, having reached 1.5 million in June 2013.

The mass exodus of Syrians has placed an extraordinary burden on neighboring countries, especially Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, each of which have taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees. None had the infrastructure to deal with the influx, which has created social, political, and economic pressure on these host countries.

And the price tag of the operation to support the Syrian refugees is unprecedented: $3.7 billion, according to the U.N. Less than half of that amount has been delivered so far, according to U.N. data, leaving a gap of more than $2 billion that has yet to be met. "The world is failing to meet the needs of refugees and the countries hosting them," Guterres said in his Friday statement.

Late last month, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. will contribute an additional $378 million in humanitarian funding for Syrian refugees, bringing its total contribution to $2.4 billion. The U.S. also provides training and a limited supply of arms to rebel groups in Syria that it deems moderate.

Earlier this week, the U.N. refugee agency released a report that detailed the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons against civilians. Chemical agents were used as recently as late April, according to the report. A year ago this month, the Syrian government used weapons containing sarin gas on rebels and civilians outside of Damascus, killing nearly 1,500, at least 426 of whom were children. In the aftermath of the attack, Obama promised to retaliate with military strikes, only to back down in the following weeks, choosing instead to partner with Russia to destroy Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons, with the cooperation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Last week, Obama announced that the project to destroy the stockpile was complete.

As the Syrian conflict—well into its third year—only shows signs of escalation, many in the U.S. and abroad are calling for action. "Three million refugees is not just another statistic. It is a searing indictment of our collective failure to end the war in Syria," Angelina Jolie, a U.N. special envoy on refugee issues, said Friday.

Congressional Republicans have also been especially vocal in pushing Obama to engage in Syria. "If our military commanders tell us that we need ground forces to defeat ISIL, which is a threat to the United States, so be it," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., last weekend.

But as Obama indicated Thursday, the White House remains wary of this sort of military intervention, and although he asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to prepare a portfolio of military options, he has yet to see any plans.