“Humanitarian aid to Syria is not getting to those who need it most” writes Bury South MP Ivan Lewis
As the political debate about the rights and wrongs of international military intervention in Syria rages, we must not lose sight of the incredible suffering and extraordinary needs of the Syrian people which are multiplying every day.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has rightly described the situation in Syria as “a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history”. The scale and horror of this crisis is unimaginable: almost one third of the population have fled their homes due to violence, insecurity or a lack of basic services. At least 4.25 million people are displaced inside Syria, plunged into poverty and dependant on others for shelter and support, while another 2 million have fled to neighbouring countries. Over 100,000 people have been killed. Young children are deprived of an education, families are being torn apart, and lives are being destroyed.
Having returned from the region this week, Save the Children UK chief executive Justin Forsyth described his shock at the “targeted and systematic violence against children”. He said: “It’s hard to describe the pain and trauma of the children I met this week in Lebanon and Jordan. These children have been shot at, tortured, detained and separated from their families.”
“They have witnessed scenes of unimaginable horror and violence. 14-year-old Majed told me his friend was shot through the back and that he watched him die. 13-year-old Mahmoud told me his mother and father were kidnapped. He witnessed a massacre and was shot at. These children are having nightmares, wetting their beds, and some are self-harming. Others haven’t spoken since fleeing Syria.”
Following the use of chemical weapons and uncertainty over external intervention, neighbouring countries are anticipating a dramatic escalation of already extraordinary average of 5,000 Syrians fleeing each day. Syria’s neighbours have stepped up to the plate to provide support to refugees fleeing conflict but they cannot cope with the scale of the challenge. In Lebanon, Syrian refugees now comprise more than 18 per cent of the population which is creating huge economic and social pressures. Basic services such as health, education, water and sanitation services have reached their capacity. Government ministers from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have issued an appeal to the international community for an urgent and major expansion of humanitarian support for the region.
Desite the generous assistance provided by the UK, the humanitarian appeal for Syria is only 43% funded. The UK Government must continue to urge the international community to fulfil their pledges of support for refugees and their host countries. Without more funding, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent warned that 150,000 people might have to go without food in October.
Crucially, aid to Syria is not only a question of funding but of humanitarian access and respect for international humanitarian law. NGOs have repeatedly raised concerns about support reaching all areas of the country in both government and rebel controlled zones. With most aid being channelled through regime-controlled Damascus there is a huge risk that relief is not being provided impartially on the basis of need. Humanitarian access from Damascus is also being impeded by bureaucratic procedures imposed by the Government of Syria including delays in issuing visas and lengthy customs procedures, multiple checkpoints on the road and fighting and insecurity which put aid workers at risk. It is a disgrace that assistance is being prevented from reaching people in need.
At the recent G20 Summit David Cameron rightly raised the issues of humanitarian funding and access but the international community has yet to coalesce around a robust action plan to ensure that aid reaches people across Syria, including across conflict lines and across Syria’s borders. The UK must leverage its leading humanitarian role to push for a United Nations Security Council resolution specifically on humanitarian access which agrees safe priority routes for NGOs, legitimises cross-border aid and demands reductions in bureaucratic impediments to ensure aid can be delivered.
Of course a political solution is urgently needed to stop the fighting and to bring an end to the humanitarian crisis. But until agreement is reached we cannot afford to stand idly by as the tremendous suffering of men, women and children continues.