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Syria crisis: "We are not able to keep up"

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“In Syria, the needs are escalating at a very rapid pace and outgrowing our ability to address them.” Valerie Amos, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, describes how ongoing violence, funding shortfalls and a failure to provide safe access are preventing aid agencies from reaching Syrians in desperate need.

Five UN agency leaders recently issued an appeal to draw attention to the plight of the Syrian people after more than two years of conflict. More than 70,000 have died and more than five million people have been forced to leave their homes. “Enough,” they said, “Enough.”

Valerie Amos, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, Margaret Chan (World Health Organization), Ertharin Cousin (World Food Programme), Antonio Guterres (United Nations Refugee Agency), and Tony Lake (UNICEF) appealed to all involved in the brutal conflict and to all governments that can influence them: “Use your influence, now, to save the Syrian people and save the region from disaster”.

Q. Why hasn’t more been done by the international community to get humanitarian assistance to all Syrians displaced and otherwise affected by the civil war?

Valerie Amos: Some 6.8 million men, women and children need urgent help in Syria, including 4.25 million people who have been displaced from their homes. A further 1.3 million Syrians have fled, seeking refuge in other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. United Nations humanitarian agencies and partners are doing their best to meet the needs of the Syrians affected by the crisis – we’re reaching two million people every month with food, supporting healthcare for 2.7 million Syrians, and helping five million people get safe drinking water.

But it is not enough. The needs are rising at an alarming pace and we are not able to keep up. The combination of insecurity, administrative hurdles and insufficient capacity is taking its toll.

As I briefed the Security Council recently, getting trucks of supplies from Damascus to Aleppo means negotiating 50 checkpoints and travelling more than 300 kilometres. We can’t do business this way. We need a mixed response. Doing as much as we can within the country but also bringing in supplies across the Turkish and Jordanian borders to help people trapped in those areas. But so far the Syrian government has said no to cross-border operations. They see these as undermining their sovereignty. Our priority is to try to get to as many people as we can.

We have repeatedly asked the international community to use their influence to bring about an end to the conflict. I have also asked the Security Council to consider authorising cross-border operations so that we can more easily help people where they are, for example in and near Aleppo and Dera’a. What we need is an end to the violence.

A displaced family in the suburb of Sanoura, Damascus. Over 2 million people are displaced in Syria, many of them living in shelters with inadequate protection against the harsh winter. January 2013. Photo: OCHA | David Gough

Q. Although US$1.5 billion has been pledged to aid Syrian refugees, we hear that only a relatively small proportion of that has been delivered. What’s the cause of this delay?

Donor governments have so far committed $741 million, i.e. about half of their Kuwait pledges. Other pledges were also made before and after the Kuwait Conference. Together this brings the current overall level of pledges to the Syrian crisis in 2013 to $880 million. I hope that donors who have not yet converted their pledges to cash will do so as soon as possible, so that we can continue to provide life-saving aid to people affected by the crisis in Syria.

Q. Is there any reason why ‘safe corridors’ – as successfully used in Afghanistan and Darfur, for example – cannot be set up into and inside Syria for humanitarian access?

For ‘safe’ or ‘humanitarian’ corridors to work, all conflict parties need to agree to keep the ‘corridor’ secure, so that the people using the corridor and the aid workers helping them can be safe. Unfortunately there has been no such agreement in Syria.

Q. How does the Syrian crisis compare with other conflicts whose human consequences the UN has had to deal with over the past 25 years?

I don’t like to make comparisons as every crisis has a human face. It is ordinary people who are trapped by the violence or lose their lives. In Syria, the needs are escalating at a very rapid pace and outgrowing our ability to address them. The number of families displaced because of the conflict make up about 20 per cent of the country’s population and, when you add this to the 1.3 million refugees, the total number of people who have fled their homes to seek safety elsewhere rises to about a quarter of Syria’s population.

Just in terms of numbers, the crisis in Sudan in 2010 led to the displacement of some 5 million people (i.e. between 10-13 per cent of the country’s population). In Afghanistan in 2002, the conflict led to 1.2 million internally displaced people (IDPs) – 1.4 per cent of the country’s population – and 2.5 million refugees. Iraq saw 2.8 million people displaced in 2008 (9 per cent of the population) and 1.87 million refugees. The current estimates in Syria show a bigger proportion of IDPs as a percentage of the country’s population.

Q. What single action by the international community, if taken tomorrow, would make the most positive impact on this terrible humanitarian predicament?

Syrians want an end to violence and the conflict. This is why the international community needs to reach the necessary consensus to support a political solution to the crisis. Syrians should not have to suffer another day unnecessarily.

We also need to be able to get to the people who need our help. The parties to the conflict need to ensure safe and unimpeded access to people in need, wherever and whoever they are. It is not acceptable that humanitarian workers are targeted while bringing relief to the people.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation

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