According to Antonio Gutteres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the situation in Syria is the worst humanitarian crisis since the Cold War. It’s hard not to agree with him, when you consider the statistics. In less than 3 years of conflict, 100,000 people have been killed; more than 2 million have fled the country as refugees; almost 7 million are in desperate need of aid (more than half of them children); and 4.25 million are struggling to survive as internally displaced people (IDPs).
Much is made of the plight of those who have flocked to refugee camps in neighbouring countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. As grave as their situation is, though, it must be said that those who have escaped Syria are relatively fortunate: they are now safe, and most have proper shelter and access to food, water and medicines. Unlike those who remain in Syria – mostly living in schools, mosques and deserted buildings (or even under clumps of trees) – without these basic essentials.
Recently, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that the conflict had reached “unprecedented levels” and showed no signs of abating.
The Syrian government has added to the hardship by increasing restrictions on the delivery of supplies to opposition controlled areas, compounding the healthcare crisis in many areas. The water and sanitation situation remains of great concern throughout the country with reports of an increase in hygiene related diseases, especially in IDP camps. A July Ministry of Health report stated that up to 60% of public hospitals have limited or no capacity.
The new school year was due to begin on 15th September. As a large number of schools are either occupied by IDPs or damaged, some children – already having missed 2 years of education – will remain without proper schooling. According to Ministry of Education data, almost 2 million children have dropped out of school since the last academic year. That’s nearly 40% of all schoolchildren in grades 1 to 9. Many of these children have been put to work to support households because their fathers are disabled, missing or dead. This situation is all the more tragic for a country so close to reaching universal primary education before the start of the crisis. School gives children a degree of normality and pyscho-social support badly needed in times of conflict, and helps keep them safe from exploitation and forced conscription into armed groups.
Ireland has sought to continue its role as an ‘international good citizen’ with a total contribution to the crisis from the government of nearly €11 million. This makes Ireland’s per capita contribution to Syria one of the largest in the world. The €11 million includes contributions to various UN agencies, the ICRC and Irish NGOs, and supplies of non-food items. For GOAL, an allocation of €650,000 is funding one part of the agency’s humanitarian response programme in Syria, the largest intervention in its 36 year history.
Talk of an international intervention came after reports of the use of chemical weapons on three districts in the suburbs of Damascus had refocused the international community’s attention on Syria. However, the Syrian people cannot understand why they are getting this attention only now when in excess of 100,000 people have already been killed by rockets, bombs, gunfire and grenades. As one Syrian woman put it to a GOAL worker, as news of the attack and the West’s reaction to it filtered through to the part of Northern Syria he was visiting, “So it’s okay for the regime to butcher us in our tens of thousands, as long as they do it with the gun and the bomb?”
Commentators have also been critical of the West’s reluctance to commit to the humanitarian response in Syria. The UN’s request for $5.2 billion remains seriously underfunded. However, there are no clear ‘good guys’ in the conflict, with atrocities undeniably committed by both sides, and with the fractured nature of the opposition, it can be hard to identify who to help. Add to this the effects of Western conditioning by the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences and it may be a little easier to understand the reluctance to get involved. With natural disasters such as the Haiti earthquake, it is also traditionally easier to motivate the international community for an emergency response.
Until the international community launches an adequate humanitarian response, Syrians will continue to die in their thousands.