BEIRUT — More than 100,000 Syrians fled their country in August, the highest monthly total since the crisis began in March 2011, the U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday.
That exodus sharply increased the number of Syrians living in neighboring countries, bringing the total number of refugees to 234,368 in the past 17 months, the agency said.
Along with activists' reports that the death toll in August also was the highest in the civil war with 5,000 killed, all signs are pointing to unprecedented levels of misery in a country where President Bashar Assad's regime is fighting an increasingly violent rebellion.
"If you do the math, it's quite an astonishing number," U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said of the number of people who fled in August, speaking to reporters Tuesday in Geneva.
"And it points to a significant escalation in refugee movement and people seeking asylum, and probably points to a very precarious and violent situation inside the country," she said.
But even the August figure only counts refugees who are registered and those awaiting registration.
Officials acknowledge the real number of Syrian refugees is likely far above 200,000, because tens of thousands are believed to have not yet contacted authorities.
The uprising began with largely peaceful protests of Mr. Assad's regime but has turned into a civil war that activists say has killed at least 23,000 people.
As Syrians look to escape the bloodshed, Mr. Assad told the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross on Tuesday that the group is welcome to operate in Syria — as long as it remains "neutral and independent," state media reported.
Mr. Assad has accused the international community of conspiring to unseat him.
Red Cross spokeswoman Rabab al-Rafai did not give further details about Mr. Assad's meeting with Red Cross President Peter Maurer in Damascus but said Mr. Maurer also met Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad and the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
"President Assad confirmed Syria welcomes the humanitarian operations that the organization is conducting on the ground in Syria as long as it works in a neutral and independent way," the state-run SANA news agency reported.
Mr. Maurer's three-day visit, which began Monday, comes as the need for humanitarian assistance grows increasingly urgent.
According to the U.N. refugee agency, there are more than 80,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, where the borders remain open, and there is a backlog of 8,000 Syrians waiting to be processed at the border.
Jordan has more than 77,000 Syrian refugees, Lebanon has more than 59,00, and Iraq has nearly 18,700, according to the agency.
Inside Syria, the fighting has spread to the two largest cities — the capital, Damascus, and the commercial hub of Aleppo.
U.N. World Food Program spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said more than 264,000 people are taking shelter in public buildings in the Aleppo region — about 200,000 in rural areas and more than 64,000 in the city.
Ms. Byrs said her agency is scaling up operations to provide food urgently needed by 1.5 million people this month, mainly in areas where there has been fighting and people have been made at least temporarily homeless.