|The destruction in Aleppo, Tariq Elbab. Photo courtesy of Victor Breiner.|
Since last June, I’ve been trying, along with other committed friends, to concentrate on the relief work. For this purpose, we have met countless numbers of foreign correspondents and humanitarian-aid workers from various international organizations and NGOs, with the single aim of raising awareness about the severity of the current humanitarian crisis in Syria on one hand, and in the surrounding countries that host our refugees on the other. We’ve had one preoccupation: “How could we better mobilize people in this field to act fast so we would have a proper response vis-à-vis the escalating crisis before winter arrives?”
What have been the results so far? To be frank, I have to confess that the result was, and still is, a total failure and a deep disappointment. Either no one is willing to take the crisis we are facing seriously, or they don’t dare to do what it really takes to help a people struggling for his survival on a daily basis. Increasingly, Syrians have the impression that they are left alone to face their fate.
On the battle field
Winter has come, and thousands of displaced citizens in Syria’s two biggest cities have no shelter, and are left alone outdoors to starve in the hopeless fight against rain and winter’s harsh cold. Displaced families who came to small towns like Ar-Raqqah, 160 Km east of Aleppo, have doubled the toll of its inhabitants without receiving any extra help. Hundreds of other Syrian refugees in Lebanon are not receiving any medical care, because they simply cannot afford it, or their illnesses do not fit the “humanitarian” organizations’ criteria! A few injured people lucky enough to be smuggled out of the country, are struggling to receive proper treatment, especially to find an institution that would pay for the operations they desperately need to survive. Hundreds of activists who fled the country to seek asylum elsewhere, after suffering a horrible torture during long periods of detention, are coming across closed doors in most of the western embassies and even in some of the Arab embassies as well. Not to mention the failure, after 20 months of the uprising, to stop the torture taking place in the secret detention centres of the Syrian regime.
It is awful to see the extent to which the international community has failed to handle the Syrian case, especially on the humanitarian level, after its shameful failure on the political one. Most of the humanitarian-aid workers that we’ve met so far admit openly that what they are facing in Syria is unprecedented. But they still insist on working by the book and relying on stone-aged protocols that have proved to be useless in the current case.
Syria is one of the last countries on the globe that still does not allow, in the twenty-first century, humanitarian organizations to interfere in a situation that most of the foreign media now describes as a civil war. So far no big-scale humanitarian organization, except for the ICRC, is allowed to enter the country and provide its services. Even ICRC is working hands tied, as it is forced to deliver its aid through a governmental organization, the Syrian Red Crescent. On their part, their personnel have to play according to the regime’s rules, or they would be targeted by the regime’s snipers or, in the best case scenario, face arrest and prosecution before the newly established “terrorism” court.
Unfortunately, the absence of an interlocutor, capable of negotiating better terms with the Syrian regime for quick-impact relief operations, is a catastrophic failure of the international community. Even Mr. Al-Ibrāhīmī, the UN envoy for Syria, seems to be totally helpless, and unable to get any purchase on this.
In neighbouring countries
What about the relief of the refugees in the surrounding countries? You may be surprised to know that the situation is no better. The Jordanian government is hardly permitting any organization to work freely inside the “Al-Zaatary” camp, whose conditions are, according to all international standards, inhumane. The support offered to those who manage to reach Jordanian cities is pathetic. Even in Lebanon, where NGOs can freely act and move all over the country, the response is very poor, and there are serious issues left without follow up.
Take the schooling of Syrian refugees’ children, for example. Although the Lebanese government has received considerable funds from international donors to enroll Syrian students in its public schools, which are already overcrowded with Lebanese students, some public school principals, in areas that have a dense presence of Syrian refugees, are refusing to admit Syrian students, and the ministry of education won’t move a finger to deal with it. This treatment is leaving parents with two options, either to enroll their children in the expensive private school sector, which most of them cannot afford, or to leave them without education for the second consecutive year.
According to The Daily Star: “Lebanon has become the third country to exceed the mark of 100,000 registered refugees, joining Turkey, with 101,834, and Jordan’s 105,737.” The UN estimates that approximately 2.5 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance; approximately 1.2 million people are internally displaced. The total number of registered refugees and individuals awaiting registration is 446,772 as of 25 November. This includes 9,734 Syrians registered with UNHCR in North Africa.
Huge as it seems, the number of registered refugees in Lebanon is nearly the half of their total actual number. Most Christians for instance, who came to Lebanon during the last few months are not registering their families with UNHCR, in the hope that their stay will be temporary. Mainly, they fear the regime’s retaliation if they had for one reason or another to go back home.
Syrian refugees in Lebanon have all been forced to seek refuge in rental apartments, small rooms or even garages in different Lebanese villages and slums, especially those located around Tripoli, in the Bekaa Valley and the Palestinian camps near Beirut. The refusal of the Lebanese government to build refugee camps, or any kind of collective hosting facilities, has led to the rise of rental costs, which sums up the burdens weighing on the refugees’ shoulders. The cost of a single room in the slums of Shatila camp for instance is between 250-300$ per month.
UNHCR, the biggest worldwide organization to take care of refugees, is overwhelmed by the flow of refugees to Lebanon. They already have nearly 30.000 persons awaiting registration, and the delays in appointment they are giving for the new comers have reached two months, a very long period for a refugee to wait till he becomes eligible to the services he is entitled to.
Enough talking about others’ responsibility and failure, and let us face our own; we Syrians.
As a matter of fact, the rivalry between the different currents of the Syrian opposition, that so closely reflects the rivalry between the different states supporting them, has proven to be as lethal as the failure of the international community. The delay, caused by this rivalry, in forming a really strong coalition between the different strands of the Syrian opposition, has been exploited by different parties of the international community as an excuse for the hesitation they show for any significant support for the Syrian cause, both on political and humanitarian levels.
The Syrian opposition’s devastating delay in forming a strong political body has left it unable to mobilize an international aid campaign for their countrymen. It has been incapable of organizing and supervising a serious relief operation in the various afflicted regions of the country, even those under their control.
All of these factors have resulted in a total chaos in the few operations that still rely upon small individual uncoordinated initiatives. Moreover, this lack of cooperation has left the doors open to the most extremist financiers from the Arab Gulf countries to force their own agendas on the brigades they are financing, agendas that have nothing to do with Syria’s cause of freedom and dignity. This factor is now raising real concerns among Syrians themselves, and western countries as well. We are witnessing in the northern part of the country which is controlled by these ‘resistance fighters’, some extreme religious practices totally alien to the moderate Islam of the Syrian people.
The same can be said about the lack of cooperation between the hundreds of activists present in the surrounding countries. It is very sad to see how rarely they manage to coordinate the too many small initiatives they are inventing one after another. Many of them are spending a considerable amount of their time and energy in small relief and lobbying campaigns, when they could have a wider and deeper impact if these efforts possessed a minimal amount of coordination.
As for the Syrian expatriates, regrettably, they too in their turn have fallen victim to the overall division inflicted upon Syrian society. They weren’t able to sublimate their political differences sufficiently to campaign on behalf of their suffering compatriots. Thus the wide Syrian diasporic presence, exceeding fifteen million according to some official estimations, has been paralyzed and has not met the expectations it raised.
This is a short description of the catastrophic failure to handle the Syrian humanitarian crisis. Sadly, the results of this failure are far more dangerous than may first appear to be the case, as there have been reports since November, 27 of the death of three babies from hypothermia in the Al-Zaatary Jordanian refugee camp. This is just a premonition of what is awaiting these poor refugees, as we still have three months of harsh winter ahead of us, which might result in an unprecedented catastrophe in this region of the world.
There are also the sad results of the siege of Aleppo in which the Syrian regime is prohibiting supplies of fuel and flour from entering the city. This practice, alongside with the unrelenting shelling of bakeries that has been taking place for months now, result in a tragic lack of the main component of nutrition for most Syrians, which may soon lead to a famine.
Yes, everyone is responsible, the international community and the Syrians as well, for the death of those three babies who escaped the war but couldn’t escape the cruelty of the world.
Every one is responsible for the possible victims of famine in Aleppo and the deaths yet to come. We need an immediate emergency response both on international and local levels. We need to see some serious pressure from the international community to end the siege on Homs, Aleppo, Idleb and Deir-Ezzor. We need to see more financial support for the small local initiatives of the local Syrian communities. We need to rise above the political differences and the stupid excuses to move right away and provide what is necessary.
Fadi Hallisso, sj