Tuesday March 14, 2023

The international community must reinvigorate efforts to build long-term peace and development in Syria beyond the current earthquake response, Islamic Relief says as the Syria crisis enters its 13th year.

While attention on the crisis has waned, the scale of suffering is now greater than ever. The recent earthquakes have exacerbated the destruction caused by 12 years of violence that has caused the world’s biggest displacement crisis and forced more than 13 million people from their homes.

Public services such as health facilities and schools have been decimated by years of bombing, supply shortages and now the earthquake. The economy is devastated, with 90% of people in Syria now living in poverty and millions unable to find work or feed their families. Around half of all households don’t have enough food and hunger levels are soaring. Islamic Relief is seeing an increase in child labour, and early marriage of young girls, as families struggle to survive. Nearly half of all children now show signs of psychological distress.

While funds are now arriving for the earthquake response, the wider 2023 UN-led response plan for the Syria crisis is just 5% funded. Islamic Relief is calling on governments that have neglected Syria in recent years to renew support for people’s livelihoods, protection and essential services.

Waseem Ahmad, CEO of Islamic Relief Worldwide, has spent the past few days meeting Syrian refugees in Türkiye, as part of earthquake response efforts. He says: 

“There is still rubble everywhere and the smell of death lingers in the ruins of people’s homes. I met Syrian refugees who have escaped horrific violence and bombing and are trying to build new lives, only to have everything they own ripped away in a flash by the earthquake.  

“The earthquake must be put in the context of 12 years of crisis. Relief efforts must support long-term solutions that rebuild infrastructure damaged over the past 12 years, not just the past few weeks. Millions of people in Syria have been uprooted and homeless long before the earthquake struck, and hospitals are struggling from years of bombing and scarce supplies. After the earthquake we must not just return to the status quo, we must invest in Syria’s future by supporting people’s livelihoods and restoring public services such as healthcare and education.    

“After 12 long and brutal years it feels like the world has largely forgotten the people of Syria. This is one of the defining crises of the 21st century and it is vital that we do not abandon people at this time of great need.” 

Funding to support people who have fled the violence has been falling for the past few years. Around 6.8 million people are now displaced internally within Syria, and an additional 5.6 million refugees – almost half of them children – are now living in other countries in the Middle East. Many are torn between a life of desperate hardship and the ongoing fear of returning home.

Mona, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, is suffering from breast cancer and her son needs treatment to remove tumours from his neck. She told Islamic Relief of the impact of the fall in funding:

“In Syria there was bombing, killing, beating and slaughter. But here in Lebanon our situation has become more difficult and more complicated. We used to benefit from a United Nations card (to get food and other aid) but now it has been stopped. We couldn’t afford coal for the heater, so to keep warm we had to burn old shoes and old clothes. I despair of this life. Our situation in Lebanon is very difficult, (but) we cannot return to our country. If we did, I would be surrendering the safety of my children. There is no safety in Syria.”    

Islamic Relief is also calling for action to improve humanitarian access within Syria, such as by authorising longer-term cross-border aid and ensuring that international sanctions do not impede humanitarian assistance. At present UN Security Council approval for bringing aid across the border from Türkiyeexpires every six months, making it impossible for humanitarian agencies to plan and provide the sustainable, long-term support that is needed. Sanctions often have unintended consequences which result in delays in providing critical aid and challenges transferring funds for humanitarian work into Syria. Temporary humanitarian exemptions issued for the earthquake response now need to be extended.

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