Her beautiful features distorted by pain and anger, Haifa told us how she had arrived at a refugee camp in Turkey. Aged 30, with her two children aged 10 and nine and pregnant with her third, she fled her home on 4 March 2011 as Syrian troops burnt it down. Twenty-one members of her family were killed. Her husband along with eight other men, were lined up against a wall and shot. Miraculously he survived but with bullets lodged in his head. Haifa sold what little gold she had to pay the smugglers to take her and her family across the border to safety in Turkey.
Talking to Haifa in the small portacabin in which she lived with her three children in Nizip camp, we were struck by her determination and bravery. She is one of two million Syrians now living in Turkey. Her camp-amongst the best that either of us have ever visited- holds nearly 5000 people in 908 container homes. All the children are being educated and there is decent healthcare provision. Haifa and her family are amongst the lucky ones. There are 330,000 Syrians living in camps in Turkey. Nearly 1.7million are living with families or on their own. Turkey has been extraordinarily hospitable. Promised EU funding support cannot arrive too quickly. All 23 refugee camps in Turkey are funded by Turkish tax payers who have spent more than $2billion on these camps in the last year.
As we passed along the Syrian Turkish border we came to Rehanlyi, a town of 80,000 now swollen to 300,000 following the arrival of 220,000 Syrians. While we were there, just over the border in Latakkia the Russian air force bombed displaced people living in a camp.
In 2010 Syria had a population of 21million. Subsequent figures are staggering. Of the 17.5million left today, 12million have been displaced. Of these six million are displaced within Syria and 4.5million are refugees in neighbouring countries. One and a half million are dispersed around the globe. Life expectancy has reduced from 76 years to 55 and one in three children have received no vaccinations- with all the dire wider consequences this could cause to a migrating population. Since this crisis started 50 Syrian families have been displaced every hour, the Syrian death toll exceeds 250,000 (the UK equivalent would be in excess of 800,000 dead) a million Syrians have been maimed or wounded, and close to 700 health workers alone have been killed. This is the largest displacement of people and humanitarian catastrophe since WWII.
Almost all the Syrians we met want to stay put. They certainly don't want to migrate to Europe. We met Rania who fled Syria four years ago after being arrested and imprisoned by the regime. She runs a workshop where 125 Syrian refugees earn a living. Almost all the women are widows. Next to the workshop 90 trucks loaded with flour destined for 200 bakeries in Syria's Idlib province are about to make their monthly journey across the border. They will also carry 5000 blankets and mattresses, heaters, ground sheets, and 750 tents with 75 tonnes of charcoal. This convoy has been funded in its entirety by British Muslims through Human Appeal. Seven British Muslim charities have raised nearly 250million pounds in response to the Syrian crisis since 2011. We are very proud of this fine British response.
This week sees the start of talks between all parties to this conflict in Geneva, while in London the Prime Minister will host a fundraising conference organised together with Norway and Kuwait. While this conference can only treat the symptoms and not the causes of this catastrophe, the world stands accused of abandoning its humanitarian conscience. Russia's intervention continues . We were told that 26 hospitals have been hit by their bombs in the last three months. Only one was in an area controlled by ISIL. The international press has focused on starvation in Madaya where 40,000 people are under siege (including the only dentist and medical technician left in the city). But there are 14 other areas under siege by the regime threatening the lives of another three million Syrians. 400,000 of them are now starving. Seventy percent of Syrians have no access to clean water and five million of these are children.
The fact that the borders are now closed to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan means that Syria is a pressure cooker, with the number of displaced people rising every hour. Despair breeds fanaticism; hopelessness radicalises. Syria was a sophisticated and ancient civilisation with a proud history and proud people who only become refugees as a last resort. It is the professional class and those with money who largely make up the four percent of refugees who have made their way to Europe. Yet for every pound spent looking after refugees in the region, it costs nearly £100 to do the same in Europe and this movement undermines the prospects for rebuilding Syria.
The London Conference this week will show whether the rich world is willing to take the necessary action to tackle the effects of this catastrophe. We will see if other countries will match Britain's commitment . The UK has provided more cash support for refugees than the rest of the EU added together. But the need is desperate. The World Food Programme has reduced rations in camps to 50% of basic need through lack of financial support. This is intolerable. With half of all Syrian Children receiving no education and 5,000 schools destroyed, we must ensure that educating this generation of Syrians urgently proceeds if they are not to be alienated beyond reason. In all areas with refugee camps and within Syria itself livelihoods, training and employment must be prioritised. We must invest in peoples lives and futures while they are in Camps rather than leave them to despair, misery and anger. As soon as possible Syria must be rebuilt and its economy re energised once political progress begins. Britain has pledged one billion pounds of our tax payers money toward this task We shall see this week whether others - particularly in the Gulf - put their money where their mouth is.
The introduction of safe havens, notably around Idlib in the North and Derra in the south, must urgently return to the agenda. The increased bombing in recent months has reduced acess for humanitarian aid and the situation is deteriorating. We must insist that Syrians driven from their homes and terrified are protected. Access for humanitarian agencies to all areas is essential. We demand that respect for humanitarian law, increasingly flouted by all parties to the conflict is restored. Human rights abusers wherever they are, warned that they will be held to account. Databases and evidence of breaches of international law and violence collected and maintained to deliver justice in the future whenever and wherever we can .
The international community is guilty of a grotesque lack of action and effectiveness. The authority of the UN - set up after the second world war precisely to ensure that this could never happen again - is being flouted and grossly undermined by this paralysis and failure.
For everyone's sake this catastrophe must now be brought an end.
Clare Short and Andrew Mitchell, former international development ministers for the Labour and Conservative parties, have returned from the Syrian Turkish border calling for renewed vigour and action from the international community over Syria
A shorter version of this piece appeared in The TimesSuggest a correction