Middle East

Appeal to honour Syrian aid promises

International aid agencies are calling on governments to live up to their promises of help and support for Syria's embattled citizens.

(Transcript from World News Radio)

In 2011, protesters marched into the Syrian capital Damascus in an attempt to oust the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Three years on, and two rounds of peace talks later, the future continues to look uncertain for millions of people forced out of their homes.

Now, international aid agencies are calling on governments to live up to their promises of help and support for Syria's embattled citizens.

Andrea Nierhoff reports.

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A few weeks ago, an ominous milestone was reached.

The 15th of March marked three years to the day since the start of the fighting in Syria.

And with the latest round of peace talks ending without resolution, the internal upheaval in Syria looks like it will continue for the near future.

At a recent conference, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon implored the international community to persevere with the talks.

"There is no alternative to political dialogue, a political solution. There is no prospect that military operations can give any answer at this time. We have seen during the last three years, the parties have been resorting to military solutions. And these parties, they seem to have an illusion that they can win over the other by military means. I have been warned, and consistently warned, that there is no military solution. There is only one viable solution: that is a political dialogue."

The chief executive of the Australian arm of the aid organisation Oxfam, Dr Helen Szoke, agrees political negotiations trump military tactics.

And she says Australia is in a powerful position to help.

"Australia has played an important role already by virtue of its seat on the UN Security Council, and we're really urging the Australian government not only to continue to pledge money to the UN Australia-Syria Appeal, but also to call for the peace talks to be re-instituted. I think that the only way we can get a resolution is to pursue a political solution. We need countries, internationally and globally, to be urging some resolution, which, of course, means that they have to set aside their own differences. For a country like Australia, we have a role to play in really renewing diplomatic efforts to try to end this conflict."

In January, the United Nations announced the revised amount of aid needed to support those caught up in the fighting would be $US6.5 billion dollars.

And countries agreed to give at least $US2.4 billion at the Kuwait Donor Conference, held at the start of the year.

But so far, the UN appeal has received around $800 million, just 12 per cent.

At Oxfam, Dr Szoke is critical of the response and says Australia can do better.

"The international community has helped Syria, but the UN appeal is far from being complete. Australia's fair share is calculated at about $106 million, but we've only contributed about 10 per cent of this amount. Australia has been a generous donor in the past, but we're hoping that Australia will see that the scale of this humanitarian crisis warrants a much more vigorous response."

Earlier this month, the heads of various aid groups visited a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon.

Representatives of Save the Children and UNICEF and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees spoke with people at the Fayda refugee camp about how the war had affected them.

Save the Children chief executive officer Justin Forsyth said the visit reaffirmed his belief that strengthening the flow of aid into Syria should be the international community's first priority.

"The United Nations Security Council did unanimously agree on a resolution on humanitarian access, and the first thing is we've got to get aid into Syria. That is where the tragedy is worse. That's where there's most need. And we've not (just) got to put into practice that resolution, but we've also got to end the war so everyone can go home. And we've got to redouble our efforts, using the third anniversary as a kick-start for that."

Islamic Relief Australia is an Australian-based charity cooperating with other organisations such as the World Food Program and UNICEF.

It says it is one of the few organisations with people actually on the ground in Syria working to deliver aid to hard-to-reach areas of the country.

But a spokesman for the group, Muhammad Kandil, says, despite best efforts, the demand is far outweighing the supply.

"Islamic Relief, as a whole, has delivered around $18 million to internally displaced people inside of Syria. Of that amount, Islamic Relief Australia sent around $1 million. And that's been from a campaign that's lasted almost as long as the conflict itself. And that's gone ahead and benefited around 1.5 million people inside of Syria. Islamic Relief has been conducting a yearly and six-monthly needs assessment, and, as of December 2013, there is still so much work (to do). What makes it worse is that the ongoing conflict is constantly creating more need in areas that have been seen as maybe not as dire or urgent as previously. The overall humanitarian need for welfare and immediate emergency response is quite high."

Muhammad Kandil says, while the crisis continues, aid will go towards fulfilling urgent and immediate needs.

But he warns the need for aid will not end when the fighting does.

"It goes towards delivering food items, non-food items such as heaters, plastic sheets, mattresses, blankets, health and medical items, and water and sanitation. The health and medical includes disposable medical equipment, ambulances, emergency medical bags. When this conflict ends, there's still quite a bit of reconstruction and recovery need for many years to come."

Meanwhile, Helen Szoke, from Oxfam, says the situation extends beyond Syria's borders, with neighbouring countries being drawn into the emergency.

"We know that many of the refugees are now living in Jordan and Lebanon, and up to a quarter of those countries' populations are now constituted by Syrian refugees. This is a huge strain on these communities, on the lives of local people as well on the lives of the refugees. We know, for the Syrian people, that they can't go back to their own village so they're living in tented settlements or squatting in accommodation in the surrounding countries. This is not a normal way to live your life."

This point was highlighted during a visit by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, to a Lebanese settlement for Syrian refugees.

He says the number of people forced to flee Syria shows the depth of need for ongoing support from humanitarian organisations.

"Knowing that 9 million people are displaced, between refugees and internally displaced -- the largest population displaced in the world today -- it's something that really should deserve a much stronger commitment from the international community to stop this war, first of all, and then to mobilise all resources for effective humanitarian assistance to the Syrian victims and for solidarity with countries like Lebanon."

Oxfam's Dr Szoke says she believes people do not understand the true extent of the war.

She asks people to try to see the human side of the tragedy, without treating it like just another case of civil unrest in a foreign country.

"I think people see this conflict as a civil war. What they don't see is that people have lost their homes, their livelihoods, their way of living, just as they would've if it was an earthquake or a typhoon. But it's more complicated, because there's no immediate date when they can return to their country, where they can recommence their lives, where they can start to rebuild. Whilst this uncertainty remains in the country, there are millions of people whose lives are on hold."

For innocent Syrians caught up in the war, Islamic Relief Australia's Muhammad Kandil says the situation continues to worsen.

And like most of the world, he just wants to see the fighting come to an end.

"I personally didn't feel it would go this long, and I know that many people are shocked by the length of this conflict. I really hope we don't get to see the fourth anniversary, because the ongoing damage is compounding itself as long as the conflict continues. I think it shows that the need overall is worsening and there's a stronger need for international NGOs and humanitarian-aid organisations to reach out to other areas in Syria. I think the conflict itself, whether it's at a high or a low, still prevents the humanitarian aid from being delivered, which means that the only solution that we're looking for is probably an end to the conflict itself."

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