Syria and the collapse of international solidarity

Bureaucratic hurdles delay the support, aid convoys are blocked and humanitarian workers are attacked.

Syrian refugees who live in the streets stand in a public garden in central Ankara [AFP]

While ministers gather for a conference on resettlement of Syrian refugees, civilian children, women and men will meet closed borders as they try to escape Syria’s war. The brutality of the war lords is reaching record-high levels, just as the solidarity of the rest of us has dropped to an unprecedented low.

The number of people displaced by the war has now surpassed 10 million. It is the largest displacement crisis in a generation. All cannot get the help and protection they need in the region. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has therefore modestly asked the International community to welcome at least 130,000 Syrian refugees for resettlement between 2014 and 2016.

So far the response has been staggeringly weak: some 200 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the US. The UK has received around 100. France has pledged to resettle 500. Other so-called “G8 powers”, like Russia and Japan, are not even on the list. With the exception of Germany, promising to receive 30,000, the pledges so far reveal a total collapse of International solidarity.

While Syria’s neighbouring countries generously have welcomed more than 3 million Syrian refugees – the rest of us have so far accepted a mere 50,000 Syrians for resettlement, not even two percent of the total refugee population. These are the embarrassing statistics facing the ministers meeting at the UN pledging conference on resettlement in Geneva on December 9.

No escape

The humanitarian appeal for assistance to refugees in the region remains only half-funded. Faced with limited international support, the countries neighbouring Syria are now closing their borders or increasing the entry restrictions for Syrians trying to escape the brutal civil war.

Syrian refugees fear winter food shortages

On average, more than 150,000 Syrians were able to cross into safety in neighboring countries each month in 2013. In October this year, the number of registered refugees was less than 20,000, according to a recent report by my organisation, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and the International Rescue Committee.

Humanitarian organisations have repeatedly warned that the capacity of the host communities has been stretched beyond limits. Lebanon alone has accepted more than 1.1 million refugees since the start of violence in Syria in 2011. One out of four people in the small country is now a Syrian refugee. It is tantamount to the US absorbing the entire population of Germany.

The desperation along Syria’s borders is in part a result of our collective failure to sit down with countries in the region and ask “what do we need to do to help you meet the greatest challenge anywhere on our watch?”

The brutal consequence of this is that Syrian men, women and children trying to flee, are being turned back at the borders. Our colleagues in the field tell stories of families separated – mothers waiting for their children to escape, brothers waiting for their sisters. Satellite images show thousands of people stranded along the borders. They are denied their right to seek protection, a right International Law is supposed to guarantee.

No assistance

Inside Syria, the civil war continues unabated, forcing ever greater numbers of people to flee their homes. More than 7.6 million people are now displaced inside Syria, and close to 12.2 million people are estimated to be in need of humanitarian assistance.

Even though most of the people in need are less than what would normally be a two hours’ drive from the closest border, we are failing to get the necessary support through. Bureaucratic hurdles delay the support, aid convoys are blocked and aid workers are attacked.

They are now approaching a cold winter with temperatures below the freezing point. Many of them will not receive the support they so sorely need. Like last winter, some families will lose their loved ones, not in a battle against armed groups, but in a battle against poverty, hunger and cold – and as a result of the lack of assistance and medical services.

Even though most of the people in need are less than what would normally be a two hours’ drive from the closest border, we are failing to get the necessary support through. Bureaucratic hurdles delay the support, aid convoys are blocked and aid workers are attacked. Too few organisations are able to operate.

The Security Council and the rest of the UN member states are far from delivering on their resolutions which were meant to guarantee Syrian civilians unimpeded access to aid. As a result, the overwhelming humanitarian tragedy is escalating. People are not getting out, and aid is not getting in.

No solidarity

These are just some of the challenges our political leaders will discuss in Geneva, and later this month in Berlin to launch a new humanitarian funding appeal for the region. Now, they need to demonstrate that they understand the magnitude of the crisis.

NRC and other organisations ask the international community to offer a safe haven for at least 5 percent of the Syrian refugees within the coming year. In addition, wealthy countries need to step up economic support to the region, and the Security Council needs to make sure that the resolutions that are supposed to secure aid for civilians inside Syria are renewed and implemented.

Increased resettlement and more regional aid are needed to help overburdened neighbours reopen their borders and provide for all those who have already escaped. Without true International solidarity there will only be hopelessness left for the millions displaced inside Syria, growing despair in camps and informal refugee settlements throughout the region and instability beyond the Middle East. Just because we happen to share no borders with Syria, this does not free any of us from responsibility.

Jan Egeland is secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. In 2006, Time magazine named him one of the 100 ‘people who shape our world’.