By Joseph D’Urso
The world is “not even close to grasping the magnitude” of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, a top aid official said ahead of the fourth anniversary of the peaceful protests that marked the start of the devastating conflict.
“We may live with the aftermath of the Syrian conflict for generations,” Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The conflict has killed some 200,000 people, created more than 3.9 million refugees, mostly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and displaced 7.6 million people within Syria, UN figures show.
New figures from UNICEF show 14 million children are affected by the conflict in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, with millions trapped in areas cut off from help due to fighting.
“This is the biggest humanitarian crisis in a generation,” Egeland, a former UN humanitarian chief, said in an interview on Tuesday.
DON’T FORGET DAMASCUS
The conflict began in March 2011 as a popular uprising by peaceful protesters against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. After a government crackdown, the war has expanded into a civil conflict with regional backers.
The militant group Islamic State joined the fighting, and now controls a self-declared caliphate in a swathe of territory in Syria and Iraq, attracting foreign recruits and world attention with military advances and slickly produced videos.
“Attention has focused so much on Islamic State that it is important to remind people what is happening on the government side,” Egeland said.
Both Islamic State and the Syrian government have been accused of crimes against humanity by the United Nations.
In the fourth year of the conflict, government forces carried out at least 1,450 indiscriminate attacks from the air, Human Rights Watch said last month.
According to the New York-based group, these attacks often use barrel bombs, containers packed with explosives and projectiles that are dropped from helicopters.
SHORTAGE OF DOCTORS
Humanitarian groups are finding it hard to alleviate the plight of civilians caught up in the conflict.
Before the conflict, 2,500 doctors worked in Aleppo, Syria’s second biggest city, but the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) estimates fewer than 100 remain.
Life expectancy has plunged from 75.9 years in 2010 to an estimated 55.7 at the end of 2014, a UN-backed study has said.
“Our organisation should be running some of the largest medical programmes in its 44-year history,” Dr. Joanne Liu, MSF’s international president, said in a statement on Wednesday. “But it’s not. And the question is, why not?”
MSF was forced to scale back its activities inside Syria when five staff members were abducted by Islamic State in January 2014. “We could no longer trust that our teams would not be harmed,” said Liu.
MSF has also been unsuccessful in starting projects in government-held territory. The access granted by government forces to humanitarian groups has “decreased dramatically” in recent months, Nigel Pont of Mercy Corps, a global aid agency, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The United Nations Security Council is “failing Syria” by not implementing its own resolutions, the NRC and 20 other aid groups, including Oxfam and Save the Children, said on Thursday.
The unanimously passed resolutions, which authorise UN aid missions to enter the country without the Syrian government’s consent, have been “ignored or undermined”, the report said.
“I haven’t seen the Security Council so defunct since the build-up to the Iraq war in 2003,” said Egeland. “I think they are not willing.”
OVERWORKED AND UNDERFUNDED
NGOs also say there is a shortage of donations. “There is less money per victim than a year ago,” Egeland said.
In December, a lack of funds forced the United Nations to suspend handouts of food vouchers for 1.7 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.
Private funding for the Syrian crisis “has always been low,” Nigel Pont of Mercy Corps said.
Unlike natural disasters, the complex geopolitical causes of the Syrian crisis do not generate the same emotional response from potential donors, he said.