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He Escaped The Bombs - But He Can't Escape Winter

18/11/2016 13:30

Among the many lies of our times, one is the persistent belief that the job is done once a refugee makes it to safety. All the more so when they make it to the white and blue tents of a UN camp.

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The unconscionable truth is that the United Nations - including its refugee agency - is one of the most hideously underfunded life-saving operations on earth.

Like the world body, born out of the ashes of the Second World War, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) meets one of humanity's most pressing needs. But it is only able to meet that need if it is funded.

Hence the fund-raising appeal that popped through my letterbox this week. It is a UNHCR appeal to help protect the Syrian refugees they care for along the Jordanian border.

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It's heart-rending for two reasons. The first reason hits you immediately. The second takes a little longer.

An implacable killer

Although the 80,000 children, women and men in the UN camp have escaped the war, they now face an implacable killer: winter. The temperatures this time of year fall below 0 degrees centigrade.

At 5 degrees above zero, asthma and viruses start to take the lives of children and the elderly. At freezing point, blood flow is constricted, increasing the likelihood of heart attack and strokes. A year ago, it dropped to -11 degrees in the camp.

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There's a picture of little Omar in the snow on the envelope. "He escaped the bombs. But he can't escape winter," it says. It's genuinely unnerving, like all the charity appeals we get.

A wake-up call

Then it hits you. This is not a private charity asking for help. This is the UN. "Why on earth is the foremost intergovernmental body in the world writing to me for help?" Then you realize: this appeal is a wake-up call to an insidious moral failure taking place on a global scale.

We imagine that the UNHCR - the world refugee organization - would get the funds it needs from the 193 member states of the United Nations. It regularly issues requests to all governments, seeking donations to sustain its vital operations worldwide. Somehow we assume that the UN symbol means the work is fully funded.

In fact, only 2% of its budget is funded by the UN system.

So here they are, having to ask ordinary citizens like us to help them carry out the most basic work they do.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon put the challenge in perspective at a conference when he said: "The world spends almost twice as much on weapons in one day than the United Nations spends for our global mission of peace, human rights and development in one year."

It's hugely dispiriting for the people who work inside the UN system and on the front lines of its humanitarian work. But do they give up? By the looks of this latest UNHCR appeal, the answer may well be more encouraging than you would expect.

An ingenious suvival kit

Their teams have come up with an ingenious winter survival kit. It's got a specially designed high-density tarpaulin and thermal blanket, a collapsible jerry can (for collecting and storing drinking water - this allows families to stay inside during snow storms), and a small steel stove that doubles as a heater.

With more and more people fleeing the devastation, those kits are going to mean the difference between life and death in the snow.

They fit safely into a UNHCR tent and a donation of £75 will pay for one. £110 pays for two.

I went online to www.unhcr.org/survivalkit and gave four.

I know it's not much, considering the scale of the need. But when you are ovecome with rage and grief at the horror and futility of what's happening, then no matter how small, at least it's something that's practical, has meaning, and offers help in the midst of hate.

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