Aid agencies struggle to keep focus on Syria’s war

Three years after uprising began, international community increasingly distracted

Syrian refugees are increasingly forgotten
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Three years on since the first protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and with the flow of refugees into neighbors countries in no way abating, aid organizations are struggling to draw attention to what they describe as the worst humanitarian challenge in a generation. Lebanon as host country of the largest number of refugee – close to one million – gets much less financial support from the international community than needed. Worst of all,  Syrian children bear the brunt of the war’s impact.

These were take-home points from a press conference that two UN agencies and three international aid organizations held Saturday in Beirut. Stories about the suffering of Syrian refugee children and testimonials about their resilience were the main focuses of the press conference, which culminated in a call for justice by Anthony Lake, executive director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and a former US diplomat and national security advisor.

“Enough that diplomatic efforts to reach necessary compromises have failed; enough with denial of access by all parties to all children who need assistance; enough with destruction of schools and hospitals; enough with this catastrophe,” Blake said.

Appeals for funding by humanitarian organizations have been about 70 percent covered, however, international support for the Lebanese people and the Lebanese government struggling to cope “has been weak,” acknowledged UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.

Only small amounts have been contributed to a trust fund set up by the World Bank, Guterres said, adding that the level of financial support in areas such as infrastructure and the economy is still very low. “That support has to be strongly increased, for it is an absolutely essential condition for Lebanon to be able to continue receiving and supporting the refugees.”

The situation in Lebanon is exacerbated by the fact that the burden of hosting the refugees is falling to a large degree on areas that are the country’s poorest, added Lake. Thus the issue of trying to assess the cost burden on the country in the next 12 months is not only one of “trying to extrapolate the trends a year into the future – which I think is always very dangerous because things change – but also looking at the quality of the economy. With increasing inequities within the economy you are also reinforcing patterns that in turn have political and social consequences,” he warned.

The two high-powered UN officials and representatives of aid organizations Save the Children, Mercy Corps and World Vision had been paying a visit to Beirut to ring alarm bells for the sake of Syrian children on the third anniversary of the country’s unrest that erupted on March 15, 2011 in Daraa, southwest Syria. All three organizations are engaged in projects to support refugees, especially children, and internally displaced Syrians.

While appeals for funding were not a topic of the conference, the organizations emphasized that work for Syrian children is not getting enough of the world’s attention. The funding needs are hard to quantify as the situation is constantly evolving, said World Vision regional director Cornelia Lenneberg, “but what we have certainly experienced is that there is not enough focus today on the needs of children, on their protection and education. That is probably the area that is most under-funded.” According to Lenneberg, aid organizations have put a $1 billion estimate on education needs of the “lost generation” of Syrian children, without allocation of a time frame.

According to Andrea Koppel, vice president for global engagement at Mercy Corps, her organization has found it more difficult to motivate donor support for the Syrian crisis than it would be for a natural catastrophe. “We raised as much, $2.4 million, in three weeks after the [November 2013] typhoon in the Philippines as we did in three years for Syria.”

Lake and Guterres peppered their evaluations of the crisis with urgent appeals for an end to the war in Syria and for change in international behavior in dealing with Syrian refugees by opening borders and enacting visa programs. “It is absolutely unacceptable that we see people drowning in the Mediterranean because they have no legal way to come into Europe,” Guterres said. “It is absolutely unacceptable that we are asking Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, [and] Egypt to receive more and more Syrians. Countries should show that Jordan, Lebanon, and other neighbors will not be left alone and that they are ready to share the burden,” he continued.

However, even the best intended appeals for ending the conflict and solving the refugee crisis cannot hide the fact that the shifting in global attention to other problems, such as the Crimea crisis, has moved Syria down the ladder in international priorities.

As the UNHCR numbers show, the attempts at peace negotiations in January and February did nothing for visibly alleviating the flight responses of the beleaguered population: the number of more than 2.5 million registered Syrian refugees, 99 percent of whom left their home country in the past two years, has continued to grow with more than 210,000 persons fleeing between January 1 and March 15 of this year. This rate is practically unchanged from the net increase in refugees recorded by UNHCR for the period from last October 15 until the end of 2013.

Any estimate on the impact of the Syrian war on the economies of Lebanon and other Levant countries in the next twelve months would still be guesswork, according to Lake. The international aid organizations acknowledge that they cannot predict the funding needs to meet the humanitarian crisis and protect refugee children from harms, which range from avoidable amputation of limbs due to lack of medical options to the risk of a heightened propensity of child war victims to use violence themselves later on.

The outlook less than two years after the escalation of the Syrian protests into a civil war is thus more and more shaping into a heritage of conflict that may take a generation to clean up. For Mercy Corps’ Koppel, the corresponding financial needs are not quantifiable. “It is really endless,” she said. ”When you have close to three million refugees, over half of them children, and you have the needs of the host community, the need is so great that we can’t get too much [funding].”

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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