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Jehangir Malik Headshot

Empty Words or Promises of Hope for Syria?

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As I stood before the International Development Select Committee on Tuesday, giving evidence on the UK's response to the Syrian conflict, I was transported back to last July. That was the last time I visited this once-beautiful, now war-torn land, seeing with my own eyes the intense pain and tragic suffering of its people.

Just a few months after my return, in October 2013, the UN Security Council issued a strong statement urging all parties to the conflict to allow safe and unhindered humanitarian access to people in need. At that time, 6.8 million Syrians desperately needed help, and at Islamic Relief UK, the statement gave us hope.

Four months later, that number has risen to 9.3 million - and the UNSC's statement has remained unheeded. Islamic Relief's teams continued - as they do today - to risk their lives delivering aid to besieged families inside Syria and refugees who have made it out. We also kept lobbying for access, through our 'Stand Up For Syria' campaign and a joint letter to the UNSC ahead of the Sochi games, alongside 37 fellow agencies. A few days ago, on 22nd February, Security Council members passed a unanimous resolution demanding humanitarian access once again.

Today at the House of Commons, I echoed the statement issued by Islamic Relief and 17 of our partners in response to the resolution: this promised access is absolutely crucial to saving Syrian lives.

Inside the country, the conflict is expanding towards border areas. In NGO jargon, 'the humanitarian space is shrinking' - meaning that it is becoming more difficult to get aid in and for those fleeing Syria to reach crossing points.

To address this challenge it is imperative that the UN resolution is swiftly implemented, enabling Islamic Relief and other aid agencies to reach those trapped inside Syria with additional aid. I know from my visit last year that not all would-be refugees are fleeing from conflict, or at least not when they make the decision to leave the country. Many have in fact already escaped violence in their home towns and reached safer areas in the north of Syria, only to find that they cannot survive - not because there is fighting, but because there is simply nothing to sustain them.

Makeshift refugee camps spring up and desperate families huddle together, but with no functioning economy and no access for the aid agencies who fervently want to help them, where can they hope to find such basic items as food?

Words cannot describe the hopelessness I felt emanating from these camps, and I am not surprised that so many families decide to take the next step and leave Syria altogether. If we could just get access and reach them, it might not solve the conflict, but it would lessen the burden for families who have lost everything and ease the pressure on neighbouring countries.

When donor conferences take place, like Kuwait's meeting on 15th January, agencies like Islamic Relief have come to take pledges with a pinch of salt. We have learned that unless and until they are fulfilled, these promises are just empty words and good intentions. The same principle applies to the latest UNSC resolution: if we are not to be disappointed as we were last October, we must see concrete commitment, implementation and real results.

Along with 17 fellow agencies, we are calling for real progress within 30 days of 22nd February - so time is already ticking. We want to see sieges lifted on areas like Homs and Yarmouk, which have not seen aid for hundreds of days; borders must be opened, and less red tape used to restrict the delivery of aid. All parties to the conflict should cease attacks on schools and hospitals, and out of respect for humanitarian law, we must not see any more indiscriminate use of explosive weapons in populated civilian areas.

On Tuesday, I was both proud and ashamed to stand before the International Development Select Committee. Proud, because I could speak of the donors and volunteers who have enabled Islamic Relief to alleviate Syria's suffering over the last three years. Our supporters have helped us reach 2.1 million people, two-thirds of whom are inside Syria itself; they have allowed us to stock field hospitals, provide food and shelter, and offer counselling and other support to traumatised children. In particular, a recent grant of £2 million from the UK Department for International Development has enabled us to get Syrian children - who are at risk of becoming a 'lost generation' - back into schools in Jordan.

Ashamed, because I belong to an international community that has made so little progress towards ending this atrocity, or at the very least, getting help to those innocent men, women and children who need it most.

As we approach the third anniversary of this brutal conflict, I hope and pray on behalf of Syria - on behalf of humanity - for the swift and successful fulfilment of the UNSC's demands.

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