Nationwide protests against President Assad were met with force. Syrian soldiers opened fire on their fellow citizens. Rebels responded with suicide bombings, including one in the capital, Damascus, last week. The regime’s opponents have been abducted and tortured. More than forty thousand people have been killed. There is no end in sight.
Many have chosen to flee the continuing carnage. Over two million men, women and children have been displaced. Over four hundred thousand have fled to neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey where many live a wretched life in refugee camps. The UN expects this figure to double early next year, with some refugee camps seeing five hundred new arrivals a day.
For these forgotten victims of the civil war, life is about to get tougher. Syrian refugees – among them more than 200,000 children – will face the torrential rain and freezing temperatures with the onset of the desert winter without proper shelter or clothes.
Most of the refugees live in tents, outhouses or abandoned buildings with no doors or windows. They have little or no protection from the cold. One camp includes shelters made of old billboards and tarpaulins. Many refugees left Syria in the summer, walking for days in little more than t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops. Now worried parents are making children’s clothes from blankets distributed by aid agencies, while others build fires in crowded rooms, suffering smoke inhalation and burns just to stay warm.
In a camp for Syrian refugees in Iraq, a five-year-old boy told Save the Children volunteers that his younger sister was left crying in pain from the cold. He said. “I do not want candies or things like that for me; I want a warm cover for my little sister.”
Sadly this family’s suffering is not unique. Last July eighteen thousand Syrians crossed into Lebanon in a single day. One told aid workers she escaped the bombing with her three children after her neighbour’s house was destroyed by bombs. They found shelter in an unfinished building in northern Lebanon, where she gave birth to her fourth child. Five months later, the family is still there, surviving without heating, medicine or regular food.
The situation in Syria is vastly different from that in Libya last year, when a popular uprising ousted Gaddafi. International military intervention to bring down Assad would be extraordinarily risky and looks unlikely. However, the international community can provide aid to help those who have fled the fighting. We do not have to sit back and allow innocent people to suffer.
The British Government has rightly been at the forefront of the aid effort. Last month the Prime Minister visited a refugee camp on the Syrian-Jordanian border, and promised £50 million of life-saving emergency assistance. This makes Britain the second largest donor after the United States, and will provide refugees with blankets, water and sanitation, food parcels, medical supplies and education for displaced children.
However, there is much more to do. Britain, the United States, Germany, Australia and the Netherlands are among only a handful of nations who have pledged significant support. The regional refugee appeal is only half funded with £150m still required to respond to the needs. In additionthe UN estimates that more than a million people in need of aid are out of reach of international aid efforts, in most cases because they have been driven from their homes but remain in Syria.
We cannot shoulder this responsibility alone. It’s clear that more governments must step up to the mark and accept a greater share of the responsibility for these vulnerable people, including France, Japan and Syria’s near neighbours in the Middle East. Turkey has spent over £200 million giving shelter and three hot meals a day to refugees. However, the oil-rich Gulf States could do more. With the exception of Kuwait, they have so far contributed little to the UN aid effort.
The status of Syrian refugees is already desperate, and their numbers are growing fast. There is only so much governments or aid agencies can do for those inside Syria, but the international community needs to do much more for those refugees we can reach. With food and medicine in short supply, snow on the way and some entire families sharing a single blanket the seeds are sown for a humanitarian disaster.
It is not too prevent this, but to do so the international community must massively increase its collective aid effort, and quickly. If we do not act fast, it will be too late.