Six Years of War in Syria: How Much Suffering Can We Stand?
Editor's note: This editorial was written by Olivier Longué, Executive Director of Action Against Hunger, Spain. It was originally published in the media outlet El Pais in Spain, but has been edited slightly and translated from Spanish to English.
Today, as we mark the sixth anniversary of the war in Syria, there is a growing risk that the world is becoming desensitized to the crisis. The signs of neglect are in plain view: in 2016, the international community funded barely half of the United Nations humanitarian appeal for the Syrian crisis. The level of funding is not keeping up with scale of humanitarian needs. Aid is being reduced precisely when needs are increasing. After six years of violence and horror, international donors are beginning to show signs of fatigue. And so is the public. Only the wrenching images of victims of the siege of Aleppo—or of the biting winter cold endured by Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Europe—seem to have the power to move us lately. It seems that the world could be moving toward accepting Syria as a “lost cause,” beyond our ability to resolve.
At the Helsinki Conference on Supporting Syrians and the Region in late January, the humanitarian community agreed that this conflict has, in effect, wiped out the efforts of 40 years of human development. But it must also be acknowledged that the efforts of humanitarian organizations like Action Against Hunger have alleviated suffering. Since the onset of the crisis, 5 million people have received clean drinking water in Syria because of humanitarian action; refugees have received food aid, water, and basic sanitation infrastructure in camps or informal settlements, and more than 3 million children have been able to continue receiving an education through international aid.
The impact of war involves more than lives lost. For those who survive, the damage of six years of violence is progressive. Inside and outside Syria—let's not forget that 90 percent of the five million people who have fled Syria are living as refugees in neighboring countries in the region—humanitarian organizations are witnessing people forced to resort to extreme measures to survive. These include child labor, child marriage, forced labor, and prostitution. Host populations in countries in the region that have accepted large numbers of refugees also face strained resources, which increases the risk of tensions. In Lebanon, which now hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world (more than 1.5 million Syrians and 320,000 Palestinians), poverty has increased by 110 percent since 2011.
The countries that participated in the London Conference on “Supporting Syria and the Region” in February last year committed to one of the largest pledges in history for a humanitarian crisis : $12 billion for Syria and the region (with $6 billion for 2016 and $6 billion for future years). Despite this progress and the pledge fulfillment for 2016, the 2016 UN-coordinated humanitarian Syria appeals were underfunded by nearly half.
Donors have started to show signs of fatigue, gradually reducing aid: in 2015, 56 percent of the UN appeal was funded, and in 2016, 54 percent was covered. So far this year, just 3.1 percent of the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan for Syria has been financed—reducing aid at the very moment people need it most.
We cannot forget that access is the biggest barrier to delivering humanitarian assistance in Syria: 5 million people are in areas that aid organizations cannot reach, and 12 locations are under siege in a situation that could be similar to what occurred in Aleppo a few months ago. Action Against Hunger calls on the international community to respond to three major challenges:
- Parties to the conflict must comply with international humanitarian law and ensure humanitarian actors are able to safely access victims, removing all logistical and administrative obstacles to reaching people in need, and in line with United Nations Resolution 2328.
- Donors should make good on their pledged contributions and, additionally, redouble the funding needed for Syria and the region with flexible, agile, and appropriate mechanisms for the most urgent basic needs, accelerating the release of funds and avoiding delays.
- Humanitarian organizations must use available resources with the utmost efficiency and innovate responses to help adapt and meet growing needs effectively. Building resilience must be integrated into the humanitarian response to overcome the short-term focus of aid and to encourage long-term recovery.
This spring, world leaders will meet in Brussels at a major donor conference to address the crisis in Syria. Meanwhile, the war continues: 13.5 million people cannot meet their basic survival needs within Syria. Five million Syrian refugees in the countries of the region require urgent humanitarian assistance. We cannot respond with complacency and fatigue. Our fatigue may cost people their lives.