The top United Nations refugee official has warned that Syria’s worsening humanitarian crisis risks overwhelming the international community’s capacity to respond, and that some aid agencies could run out of money for relief activities as early as the end of this month.
“What is happening in Syria today risks escalating very quickly into disaster that could overwhelm the international response capacity – political, security-related and humanitarian,” High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres told United States senators in Washington, D.C. yesterday.
He stressed the urgent need for a political solution, insisting that: “If this conflict is not stopped, we will probably have an explosion in the Middle East. Nobody wants that.”
More than 70,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed and more than three million displaced since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011. In addition, some 1.1 million people have taken refuge in neighbouring countries.
At an aid conference in January, the international community pledged $1.5 billion to respond to the humanitarian crisis resulting from the Syria conflict for the first six months of this year. However, as of 15 March, only 21 per cent of that funding has been received.
“All of the agencies involved in this humanitarian response are dramatically underfunded, with some fearing they will run out of money as early as Easter [March 31],” said Mr. Guterres.
“I appeal to governments and parliaments to urgently approve extraordinary funding for the victims of the Syria crisis, to ensure that their most basic needs are met and the stability of the region preserved.”
Last week, Mr. Guterres visited Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, where he met with Syrian refugees, government officials and host communities.
“The refugee numbers are staggering, but they cannot convey the full extent of the tragedy,” he told senators, noting that three-quarters of the 1.1 million Syrian refugees are women and children.
“There are harrowing reports of rape and sexual abuse of women and children,” he added, noting the need to fund programmes for victims of sexual violence and women at risk.
He stressed the “severe pressure” that the host countries are under and called for international solidarity. “Helping them deal with the consequences of the refugee crisis is imperative, as the preservation of their economic and social stability is in everyone’s essential interest.”
There are an estimated 3.6 million people displaced inside Syria and many more in need of aid. While his agency (UNHCR) is committed to delivering aid to all those in need, Mr. Guterres highlighted the high security risks faced by UN agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) inside Syria as they try to assist displaced people.
“Convoys have been shot at, hijacked, warehouses destroyed and looted, and several UN-contracted truck drivers have been killed since the beginning of the conflict,” he said.
Mr. Guterres expressed his appreciation for the tremendous financial support provided by the US for the humanitarian response, but warned the members of the sub-committee of “a real risk of this conflict spilling over across the region.”
In that connection, the UN has voiced grave concern at the reported Syrian helicopter strikes on 18 March in the Lebanese region of Arsal, in violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty.
Just last week, the Security Council unanimously underscored its grave concern over such incidents, and underlined the importance of full respect for Lebanon’s sovereignty and territorial integrity
“The Secretary-General stresses the importance of the Security Council’s call, and urges the Syrian authorities to heed that call,” Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson said. “It is imperative that all concerned in the region abide by their obligations under international law and prevent any escalation.”
Mr. Ban discussed the prospects for peace in Syria by phone today with the Joint Special Representative of the UN and the League of Arab States for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is continuing his efforts towards this end.