The ‘historic betrayal’ suffered by Syria’s refugees

Syrians throw snow at each other at a refugee camp in Deir Zannoun village, in the Bekaa valley, east Lebanon, January 2015. (Credit: AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Syrian refugees struggle to survive the winter with no heat, little access to clean water and not enough food, as humanitarian organizations struggle to help amid a $40 million shortfall, continued fighting and a looming sense from donors that the region is a lost cause.

“It is, of course, completely unacceptable that yet again there are reports of people dying due to lack of assistance and access to medical services during the winter period and the extreme cold weather,” said Secretary General Jan Egeland of Norwegian Refugee Council, in an interview with Humanosphere.

“The U.N.’s Winterization Plan remains $40 million underfunded. Wealthy nations are unwilling to provide the necessary support to ensure that Syrian and Iraqi families are protected from the cold. It is a collapse of international solidarity.”

The ongoing civil war in Syria, the insurgency in Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State are making it hard for humanitarian assistance to reach people in need. Factor in political complications and not enough money and it adds up to a major problem.

Egeland said it is time for donors to step up, including emerging economies.

“There is also a need for so called ‘new’ donors from outside the region to scale up their support, like for example the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa],” said Egeland. “It is important that all aid, both from new and existing donors, are provided based on needs, respecting humanitarian principles, and are not used for political ends.”

Efforts to raise money among a wider array of donors is hampered by a growing sense that the region is a lost cause.

“We must also fight the sense that is spreading of Syria and Iraq being hopeless cases. These are man-made disasters and man can make it right again. We reach and assist millions every week. And we can do a lot more,” said Egeland. “We need to have a reality check in public and political opinion in many countries to get a new understanding of the magnitude of the crisis. Donor countries have been providing significant and life-saving support, but this is the worst displacement crisis in this generation, requiring an extraordinary effort.”

Egeland is no stranger to the effort required to respond to the world’s greatest humanitarian challenges. The former U.N. undersecretary-general and state secretary in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Egeland has been involved with in range of humanitarian campaigns, from Darfur to the Indian Ocean tsunami to Lebanon. There is even a song by the satirical Norwegian duo Ylvis (best know for What does the Fox Say?) about his accomplishments.

His experiences make him acutely aware of the challenges faced by both international bodies like the United Nations and individual governments to take action. Large traditional actors who respond to humanitarian disasters, like the United States and the United Nations are helping, but a historic crisis requires a historic response.

Egeland sees little evidence to show that things in Syria will improve in the near future. However, he said he is encouraged by plans for a fighting “freeze” in the embattled city of Aleppo, being negotiated by U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura.

More is needed to reach those people with the aid they need. Increasing international action may start with public pressure.

“That the international community have not been able to provide more support to the civilians inside Syria after nearly four years of war, is a historic betrayal. The level of funding available is still nowhere near enough. When politicians are not delivering, there is a need for ordinary citizens to raise their voice,” said Egeland.

“As I have repeatedly asked, ‘where is the public outrage?’”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.