UN launches joint appeal for Syria: ‘Apathy is not an option’

The United Nations

As Syria begins 12 years of conflict amidst soaring humanitarian needs, UN agency heads launched during a European Union conference on Tuesday, a joint appeal for $10.5 billion.

More than 90 per cent of Syrians live in poverty, gender-based violence and risks to children are on the rise, and potential exposure to explosive ordnance remains high.

Moreover, food insecurity has soared to new records as 12 million Syrians go hungry every day and nearly one-in-two children are missing school – leaving them vulnerable to child labour, forced marriage, trafficking, and armed recruitment.

“Over the past 11 years, we have witnessed suffering and abuses on an immense scale; terrible violent conflict that went beyond all norms; [and] a humanitarian catastrophe that has devastated the lives of well over half the population,” UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen told the Brussels VI Conference: “Supporting the future of Syria and the region”.

Displaced families wait in line for monthly food rations in Damascus, Syria.

Calling for international diplomacy

Syria remains a highly internationalized crisis in which key issues require constructive international diplomacy, according to Mr. Pedersen.

“It is not secret…that recent international developments, the war in Ukraine, have made that even more difficult than it was before,” he acknowledged.

“But as the UN envoy, I will continue to engage all key actors, Syrian and international, on the importance of contributing not only to alleviating suffering but to confidence-building and a political path out of this crisis”.

Stay focussed

Against the backdrop of a conflict, corruption, mismanagement, COVID, sanctions, and now the Ukraine war with its knock-on effects in the region and beyond, Mr. Pedersen drew attention to the Syrians who are struggling to meet their basic needs – noting that raw statistics never truly convey “the brutal reality that afflicts so many of them”.

At the same time, he described displacement “on a scale with few comparisons; a crisis of detention and abduction; an economic disaster that has impoverished millions and fragmented the country; and the continued threat of terrorism”.

He urged the participants to stay focussed on Syria.

Political solution still out of reach

Despite continuous calls for a nationwide ceasefire and a comprehensive Syrian-led and owned political solution that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity – while meeting the legitimate aspirations of the country’s people – Mr. Pedersen said frankly: “We are far from that political solution”.

Notwithstanding the current strategic stalemate on the ground, Syria continues to require attention, resources, and a comprehensive political solution, despite having dropped from news headlines.

“Your contributions are once again urgently needed,” he underscored.

Seeking a breathing path

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths spoke at length of the “unprecedented levels” of needs driven by a decade of conflict, long-term protracted humanitarian crisis, rapidly worsening economic circumstances, climate shocks and gender-based violence.

“We have got chronic electricity, fuel and water shortages undermining the functionality of essential services, livelihoods and delivery of assistance,” he said.

The “highest importance for all humanitarian workers and humanitarian agencies,” is a comprehensive political resolution to the conflict, said Mr. Griffiths, who also heads the UN humanitarian office, OCHA.

“While we try to address the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people, we need a path to allow…[them] to breathe again and be away from the conflict”.

Lives behind numbers

To survive this year, 14.6 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance and another 12 million Syrian refugees and those hosting them across the region also require support.

“No surprise that $10.5 billion, an astonishing and eye-watering amount of money, is needed to fully support Syrians in need. $4.4 billion of that is for the response inside Syria, and another $6.1 billion for the refugees and host communities in the region,” Mr. Griffiths explained.

Acknowledging it as “the largest appeal ever” for Syria, he added his fervent hope, that it will be “the last appeal of this scale”.

“Syrian women, men and children should not be allowed to fall off our attention span and should be given a future…better than the one they faced this year,” concluded the Emergency Relief Coordinator.

Syria ‘deadly’ for children

Catherine Russell, the head of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), warned that “an entire generation is struggling to survive”.

She painted a grim picture of commonplace attacks on civilian infrastructure, families struggling to put food on the table, and nearly one-third of the country’s youth “chronically malnourished”.

“These are dangerous, even deadly, times to be a child in Syria,” maintained the UNICEF chief. “Since the war began, we can verify that nearly 13,000 children have been killed or injured – but we know the toll is much higher”.

Psychological trauma

The war has not only scarred Syria’s children physically but also caused “invisible wounds that can last a lifetime,” Ms. Russell flagged.

Roughly 2.8 million Syrian youth are now living in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey – riddled with loss, risk, and uncertainty.

“I don’t know what the word home means,” an 11-year-old girl told a UNICEF staff member.

The informal Salhabiya settlement, in rural Raqqa, northeastern Syria is home to many displaced families.
The informal Salhabiya settlement, in rural Raqqa, northeastern Syria is home to many displaced families.

Flexible support needed

And 11 years of war, disruption, and displacement have also threatened the education of an entire generation.

“More than three million Syrian children are still out of school,” the UNICEF official informed the conference, adding that these children need “sustained flexible support”.

She said that although UNICEF requires $312 million for its Syrian response along with an additional $20 million for its work in northwest, to date, less than half has been received.

“We are counting on you to provide that support. More important, Syria’s children are counting on all of us,” Ms. Russell appealed.

Impoverished refugees

Due to the interlinked factors of COVID’s socio-economic shockwaves and a food, energy, and finance crisis, precipitated by the war in Ukraine, “we are seeing soaring poverty rates and hunger; deepening inequalities; and increased tensions across the region,” said Achim Steiner, head of the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

He cited that nine out of 10 Syrian refugees in Lebanon are now living in extreme poverty as are some 81 per cent of Lebanese people – a figure that has nearly doubled since 2019 – and around 1.8 million Syrians in Turkey.

“Our collective efforts are perhaps more vital than ever before,” attested the top UNDP official.

Inside Syria

He said that the 14.6 million people inside Syria who need assistance represent “an enormous increase of 1.2 million”.

“Saving lives through humanitarian responses will remain of paramount importance, but we should remember that early recovery and resilience activities save not only livelihoods – they also save lives,” Mr. Steiner upheld.

He noted that scaling-up early recovery assistance does not mean shifting away from humanitarian aid but is based on “an assessment of real-world needs on the ground”.

The ask

For early recovery and resilience, $1.2 billion is needed, representing25 per cent of this year’s Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP).

Within this, the UNDP-led Early Recovery and Livelihoods section is asking for $247.6 million in 2022 to help lift one million people out of poverty and allow 150,000 people to find work.

“Apathy is not an option,” concluded the UNDP chief.

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