European Governments Should Look to Their Own Behaviour When Assessing the Solutions to the Syrian Refugee Crisis
As one of the few Irish-based charities to operate on the ground in Syria, we call on Irish and EU governments to give adequate support to those coping with a crisis situation that is forcing millions to come to Europe.
Human Appeal operates vital aid projects in Syria and the surrounding region. Our hospitals, clinics, schools, and food programmes seek to make conditions bearable for some of the 12 million displaced people in the region.
On the ground since 2011, we have seen a catastrophic deterioration in healthcare, education and the employment situation in Syria. The people there are facing starvation, disease and violence. For the last four years, millions of displaced people have remained in the region (in Turkey, the Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere) hoping in vain for the assistance from the international community that would enable them to return to normal lives in their home country. Their patience would now appear to have been exhausted. In desperation, they appear to be abandoning all hope of return and are heading northwards.
There can be little surprise that they are making the perilous and arduous journey to come to Europe: the surprise is that our governments did not appear to know that this would be the inevitable result of a consistently inadequate response to the crisis.
It is possible that providing the help that was requested by the UN and other aid agencies could have prevented this.
In 2013 the UN requested $4.3 billion[i] in aid supports, it received 71% of that amount. In 2014 it asked for $5.9bn[ii] receiving only 57%. In 2015 it asked for $7.4bn[iii]. It has got 32% of that so far this year. This means that to date, there has been an $8.7bn shortfall (i.e. 49%) in international funding for Syria since 2013.
We see the consequences of this catastrophic underfunding of the relief effort in Syria on the ground. Our staff report that there has been a massive drain of local medical professionals out of the country: many have not been paid for years. 61 of the country’s 91 public hospitals have been damaged; 45% are out of service. So not only do doctors and nurses risk their lives on a daily basis at work, but they find their families are starving when they return home.
The result is that by mid-2014 there were only 54 GP’[iv]s (General Practitioners) practising in Northern Syria (an area with a population of some 5 million). That is 1 GP per 92,000 people. Ireland has 1 GP per 1,800 people.
Schooling is equally affected by the collapse of the country’s infrastructure. In 2010 the Syrian education system was a regional leader with only 0.8 children per 1,000 out of school[v]. Today it is totally dysfunctional with 370 children per 1,000. Where we operate in Aleppo, 90% of children cannot attend school. As in healthcare, there has been a huge drop in the number of schoolteachers: 52,000 have left since 2011[vi]. All this means that parents within Syria have had to abandon their dreams for their children’s education.
For older Syrians the war has brought a terrible decline in fortunes. Having uncertain access to basics such as food, clean water and power, the elderly are in a very precarious situation. The damage to the healthcare system means that there is very little access to basic medical facilities. Life expectancy has plummeted from 79 years to 55 years of age. Elderly refugees suffer mentally as well as physically: 65% of older refugees present signs of psychological distress, 54% of older refugees are reported as suffering from a chronic disease[vii].
Healthy adults suffer their own problems: unemployment stands at 57% of the working population. Many are traumatised by the violence and require considerable psychological assistance when they present to our staff in Turkey and the Lebanon.
Human Appeal’s witnessing of the suffering in Syria could be characterised as follows: Parents watch their children undernourished, whiling away their lives without access to education. They see their own elderly parents suffer psychologically, needlessly dying long before their time. They themselves endure chronic unemployment and are traumatised and with feelings of guilt and helplessness. They are desperate, short-changed in the help promised from Europe and elsewhere that doesn’t come.
We are completely unsurprised that the people of Syria seem to have given up on waiting and are abandoning the region just as Europe and the world abandoned them.
We now need to make up for lost time as fast as possible by supplying aid to the region at very least to the level we have promised: short-changing the region to date has brought us to this point.
Belkacem Belfadel: Manager, Human Appeal Ireland
Fiona Duffy: PRO, Human Appeal Ireland
[iv] Internal Human Appeal Report