The Middle East Channel

The humanitarian crisis in Syria: What more can be done?

The humanitarian crisis in Syria: What more can be done?

We are facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent decades, if not the worst since the Balkans war and Rwanda. Syria is becoming a field of ruins with millions of people, mainly women and children, affected. According to the latest gruesome statistics, more than 115,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the conflict.

And what about the survivors, those who deserve the attention and support of the humanitarian community? A quarter of the Syrian population is internally displaced while more than 2.1 million are refugees in the neighboring countries, mainly Lebanon and Jordan. This means that a third of the population has been forced to leave behind home, land, and work. 

Consider also the terrifying escalation of this crisis. In one year the number of people killed has quadrupled; the number of people in need of assistance inside Syria has tripled; and the number of refugees has multiplied eight times.

Women and children are paying the heaviest price. At least 6,500 children have been killed. More than a million are refugees. Thousands of schools have been destroyed or pressed into use as shelters for internally displaced people. School dropout is on the rise.  If we do not take rapid action, the most dramatic effect of the Syrian crisis will be the loss of an entire generation who, when this war finally ends, are exactly those who can rebuild their country.

A fifth of all the country’s health centers have been destroyed and a third of the country’s hospitals too. Many doctors and health staff, targeted by combatants, have fled. The water and sanitation systems are less and less reliable. As a direct consequence waterborne diseases are on the rise. Access to food is a growing concern. The 2013 harvest is the worst in 30 years because people are not cultivating the land and food stocks are running out.

The situation of Syrians trapped in cities under siege is particularly urgent. UNICEF is now reporting cases of malnutrition for children who are living in these besieged cities. According to "Save the Children," one in 20 children in rural Damascus is "severely malnourished," while one in five families endures over seven days each month without food at home.

Despite the generosity of host countries, the situation of the refugees remains dire. We have all heard of the sprawling Zaatari camp, which has mushroomed in size to a population of 120,000 to become the equivalent of Jordan’s fourth largest city. I have visited the camp several times, witnessing its expansion and deepening hardships due to over-crowding, violence, and a lack of employment prospects.

The presence of such large numbers of refugees puts pressure on the host countries whose economies and social fabric are already fragile. The struggle for basic services such as water, electricity, health, and education, as well as competition for land (to be used for shelter) and employment exacerbates tensions with local populations.

Against this background, what more can be done?

First, we need to continue to be generous in providing humanitarian assistance. At a pledging conference for Syria in Kuwait in January 2013, I was pleased to announce a pledge of $370 million on behalf of the European Union — the European Commission and its member states. Nine months on, we have multiplied this figure by seven to $2.7 billion to help Syrians and to help their neighbors.

The way we are spending it defines our strategy: 1) emphasis on Syrian civilian victims of the conflict and 2) help for countries directly affected by the crisis. Forty percent of our assistance has been spent on food, shelter, and medicines inside Syria. I strongly believe that we need to continue to increase our presence inside Syria and deliver assistance through all possible channels, in spite of the huge constraints.

Another 40 percent of our assistance goes toward refugee populations, with a strong focus on Lebanon and Jordan, the most fragile host states. Twenty percent goes to host communities for the provision of public services, such as electricity and water, to refugees.

I see a moral imperative to continue pushing for more funding.

In this regard, the EU is the largest humanitarian donor in this crisis and the United States is the largest single-donor country. While I am committed to continuing our efforts, other donors need to show their generosity too.

Second, as this crisis is now a protracted one, we need to develop a comprehensive approach for the host countries, one that combines development, macro-financing, and humanitarian assistance. This was one of the key operational conclusions of the ministerial meeting I co-chaired with Jordan’s minister of foreign affairs during the last U.N. General Assembly.

Third, the international community needs to prioritize resolving problems of humanitarian access. The October 2 Presidential Statement on humanitarian issues on Syria adopted by the U.N. Security Council is the first positive step since the conflict began. It recalls the need for all parties to the conflict to protect civilians and relief workers and to permit unimpeded humanitarian assistance. We now have to make sure that these recommendations are implemented on the ground, through more visas for international NGOs and less obstruction in authorizing convoys and deliveries.

The government of Syria has thus far cooperated with U.N. chemical weapons inspections. But violations of international humanitarian law continue unabated. There is a risk that the focus on chemical weapons and the renewed hope of a Geneva II political conference may well overshadow the deepening human crisis in Syria. We, as humanitarians, need to make sure that civilian humanitarian needs do not disappear from the agenda of world leaders and from the media.

In particular, we must prevent the creation of a lost generation of Syrian children. This week, I was delighted to launch a concerted initiative with Britain and UNICEF to reach out and save Syria’s children from the oblivion of war.

Last but not least, we call on Syria’s neighbors to keep their borders open to incoming refugees. The European Union and others must do the same. Solidarity with people in dire need is a core European value, shared by Americans and others. I trust that we can all put it into practice at this time when so many innocent Syrians are suffering. To do this requires more attention to the civilian dimension of the conflict and a continued commitment to keep our pockets, our hearts, and borders open.

Dr. Kristalina Georgieva is the European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid, and Crisis Response.