The scenes in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon of destitute Syrian refugees are sobering and heart wrenching. In freezing winter conditions, children with no shoes look forlorn and cry from the cold in their makeshift camp settlements. One in four people in Lebanon is a refugee, and in addition to the 1.5 million refugees in the country another 1.5 million Lebanese citizens are considered vulnerable. Many of these refugees are in debt, as residency renewal payments of US$200 per individual is needed to authorise stay- a sum many of these refugees can't pay for themselves, let alone for a family of six. In Jordan King Abdullah pleaded with the international community a couple of days ago, saying that Jordan was reaching boiling point over the thousands of refugees entering the country with almost 25% of the national budget spent on helping them.
The London Syria pledging conference today takes place in light of the largest displacement of people since the Second World War. 9 million Syrians have left their homes since the start of the crisis, with a rate of 50 families' displaced every hour. One out of three children under the age of five has not been vaccinated, and more than half of school-aged children are without education. It is in light of all this that the Muslim Charites Forum organised a delegation to Lebanon and Turkey with Human Appeal and Islamic Relief who are one of many charities responding to the crisis. Lebanon with the head of ACEVO, Sir Stephen Bubb, and Turkey with two former British Secretaries of State for International Development, Andrew Mitchell MP and Clare Short. The purpose of the visit was for them to witness the ever-increasing spill-over of the conflict into neighbouring countries as well as hear first-hand accounts of the deteriorating carnage taking place within Syria by those who have fled; and to relay the message of the Syrians they have visited to the British public and government.
Three major themes came out in our discussions and observations - lack of access to basic needs and services, the pressure on regional countries and NGOs to respond, and the absence of protection for civilians and aid workers. Disturbingly there has been a complete lack of respect for International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and targeting of civilians, hospitals, schools, and markets has become the norm. Refugees told us horrifying stories of how they were burnt out of their homes and witnessed the live execution of family members and children as young as three. Madaya is not the only area under siege with starving people. There are 19 areas under siege and millions of Syrians who have no reliable access to medical assistance or food. There has been a pathetic lack of international condemnation of the large scale abuse of IHL by all parties to the conflict.
The international community must focus on protecting civilians in times of war, and relieving the pressure on neighbouring countries who are facing a strain on their infrastructure due to the large influx of people fleeing conflict. Making an issue of the comparatively small number of refugees making their way to Europe is audacious in light of the numbers countries in the region are already hosting. Two million Syrian refuges reside in Turkey, and the Turkish government has provided nearly US$8 billion since the start of the crisis to accommodate refugees in the country in organised camps that have schools, playgrounds, food markets and livelihood services all made available to those living there. Despite this generosity however, nearly 80% of Syrian refugees in Turkey live in urban settings and struggle to make ends meet with many failing to access adequate health care services to cater to the many physical and mental traumas and wounds inflicted during the war.
In addition to that, many charities that we spoke to said that despite the fact that more than half of Syria is now under the control of Daesh, many charities do not operate there, not due to lack of access but because of the fear of counter-terrorism legislation in the US and UK. NGOs are facing ever greater restrictions in terms of financial access, and local NGOs don't have the capacity to deal with complex compliance procedures required by many donors to access funds. Legislation addressing the financing of terror groups must also reflect the reality of working in conflict areas and ensure it is not undermining the humanitarian imperative to help those in need. The banking sector must do its part as well to ensure it is not part of the problem as it currently is. This has been an action point reiterated yesterday at the Syrian civil society conference that took place in London.
The international community needs to unequivocally come together and push hard for a political solution to the crisis so that rebuilding can commence. International Humanitarian Law as a body of law must be put at the top of the agenda and parties who violate it must be held to account. International legislation and the financial sector must also reflect the collective will to uphold the humanitarian imperative and cease to marginalise charities that are operating on the front lines to respond to the crisis. Lastly, civil society organisations, both regional and Syrian, need to be empowered and strengthened to respond to the vast needs. They are on the front lines responding to the crisis and will be there long after Syria fades from the headlines. The world must act now for Syria.