Syria conflict at 7 years: ‘a colossal human tragedy’

Children make their way home from school through Aleppo’s devastated streets in November 2017. © UNHCR/Susan Schulman
Children make their way home from school through Aleppo’s devastated streets in November 2017. © UNHCR/Susan Schulman

The relentless suffering of Syrian civilians marks a shameful failure of political will and a new low in Syria’s long-running conflict, which this month reaches a depressing seventh anniversary, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said on 9 March.

“This seven-year war has left a colossal human tragedy in its wake. For the sake of the living, it is high time to end this devastating conflict. There are no clear winners in this senseless pursuit of a military solution. But the losers are plain to see – they are the people of Syria,” he added.

Seven years of fighting have cost hundreds of thousands of lives, driven 6.1 million people from their homes inside Syria, and forced 5.6 million refugees to seek safety in neighbouring countries in the region.

The conditions faced by civilians inside Syria are worse than ever, with 69 per cent languishing in extreme poverty. The share of families spending more than half of their annual income on food has risen to 90 per cent, while food prices are on average eight times higher than pre-crisis levels. Some 5.6 million people endure life-threatening conditions in terms of their security, basic rights or living standards, and require urgent humanitarian assistance.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and humanitarian partners are making every effort to bring relief to those in dire need inside the country, but access to populations in besieged and hard-to-reach areas remains woefully inadequate. The humanitarian convoy bringing aid to the besieged people of Duma in Eastern Ghouta on 5 March was a welcome development. However, ongoing shelling forced the trucks to depart before half of the food destined for the hungry could be offloaded and our attempts to return have been thwarted.

UNHCR and other humanitarian actors remain ready and anxious to deliver critical aid to hundreds of thousands of people trapped in desperate need inside Eastern Ghouta and other besieged parts of the country.

“Even in war, there are rules that all sides must respect. In Syria, even the option to flee conflict areas for safety in other parts of the country is diminishing. Humanitarian access to those in need must be guaranteed. People must be allowed to leave to seek refuge and civilians and civilian infrastructure including hospitals and schools must be protected at all costs,” Grandi said.

The dangerous situation inside Syria’s borders, meanwhile, dashes the hopes of millions of Syrian refugees living in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq who dream of returning home when conditions are safe.

“With fighting in parts of Syria as fierce as at any point during the conflict, refugees are understandably still too frightened to return,” Grandi said. UNHCR is making preparations to assist in returns, but the security situation needs to improve considerably before returns can happen.

Meanwhile, the conditions for millions of Syrians in exile grow more desperate, with the vast majority living below the poverty line. More than three quarters of refugees in urban areas of Jordan and Lebanon are unable to meet their basic food, shelter, health or education needs.

The percentage of refugee children in school has increased in recent years. However, of the 1.7 million school-aged Syrian refugees, 43 per cent are still out of school. The national public school systems in host countries are laying on second shifts to accommodate Syrian students and need much more support.

“While the focus is on the devastation inside Syria, we should not forget the impact on the host communities in the neighbouring countries and the effect that so many years of exile has had on refugees,” Grandi said. “As long as there is no political solution to the conflict, the international community must step up its investment in the host countries.”

The High Commissioner pointed to the upcoming international conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region in Brussels on 24 and 25 April, which he said must result in firm pledges of stepped-up financial and development support.

Over the years, donor support has been generous, but much more is needed. In December last year, United Nations agencies and some 270 NGO partners released the 2018 Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP), a US$4.4 billion plan designed to support both refugees and members of the communities hosting them. But the gap between the needs and available resources remains wide. In 2017, the international response received only half of required funding.

The High Commissioner is currently in Lebanon, where he spent three days meeting with senior government officials and some of the nearly one million registered Syrian refugees living there. He praised the country’s generosity in hosting almost the same number of Syrians as the whole of Europe combined, but warned that inadequate international support was increasing vulnerability among refugees and the local communities where they live.