Syrians cannot afford for next year to be like this year

Violence, hunger and disease have become facts of life for millions. More can be done to alleviate their suffering, and more must be done.

Today, Ed Miliband has joined other party leaders in a joint statement on the deteriorating situation in Syria. As the leaders say, this humanitarian crisis transcends party politics.

For the people of Syria, 2013 has been a dreadful year. Chemical weapons, summary executions, rape, torture, kidnappings, and polio. Death and disease on an unimaginable scale - the worst refugee crisis since Rwanda, the most sustained assault on human rights since the wars in the Balkans. Evidence has even emerged of snipers targeting children, and the summary execution of children as young as one. Whilst the humanitarian crisis deepens, some have lost their humanity.

There can be no justification for any cold-blooded murder of civilians, but for the deliberate slaughter of infants there can be no reason, no matter how twisted the logic. But this is Syria in 2013. Already, more than 100,000 have died. More than 9 million are in desperate need of humanitarian support - 2.5 million of those trapped beyond our reach, half a million literally under siege.

The danger is that we see those huge figures as just a list of statistics. But each number is also a harrowing story. Like Somaya, the 14 year old girl from Damascus, who told Human Rights Watch about the horror of seeing her friends shot in the head. Or Jamila, a grandmother close to the border, who told Save the Children of her families’ daily fear that the crying of a starving infant may attract the bullets of armed men.

Only a political solution can stop the fighting, but effective aid can alleviate the suffering. More than 2 million refugees have already fled to neighbouring countries, accompanied by more suffering and need than we can imagine - malnutrition and disease, sick and old to be cared for, young to be educated. For countries like Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon that is no light burden.

And it’s not just refugees crossing borders. What infects Syria, passes to her neighbours. Instability, violence and disease do not stop at checkpoints. We have all been horrified by the re-emergence of polio in Syria - 14 years after the country had eradicated the disease. This is a country that neighbours Europe. Polio has re-emerged on our doorstep.

This is what UK aid is fighting. In and around Syria, British government and the British public's donations are saving lives, and if it stops things getting worse it won’t just help those on the ground. The UK has already spent more than £500m supporting those affected by this conflict - and will rightly spend more before this crisis is over. But if we don’t get things right now we could lose much more. So we need to get things right today, and that means aid has got to be as fast and effective. But at the moment three big things are holding us back.

First, the UN appeal is still woefully under-funded. As always, the UK is doing our bit, but other prosperous nations have got to put their hands in their pocket too. In September, Oxfam-produced evidence which suggests France, Qatar, and Russia are all giving less than half of their fair share. In the run up to January’s donor conference in Kuwait, we should be insisting that every country with the means to do so is fulfilling their responsibility to do so.

Second, we have got to make sure that humanitarian relief is getting through - beyond Damascus and across the whole country. People are dying from easily preventable and treatable diseases because they are simply out of reach. That has got to change - NGOs must be given the access they need to save lives.

And third, we have got to do more to protect the right to an education for Syrian children. Of course the top priority must be saving lives, but the decline in education really matters. Two million Syrian children dropped out of school in 2013 alone. One in five Syrian schools have been destroyed and hundreds of thousands of refugees have now been left with no proper schooling at all.

A generation of Syrian children without education would be a disaster for them, for their country, for the Middle East and for the international community as a whole. No-one wants to see that – and we have to everything we can to stop it from happening. Every humanitarian crisis requires the right blend of immediate relief and planning for the future. For the future security and prosperity of Syria and its neighbours getting children back in school is crucial. For young and old, the crisis in Syria has gone on too long, and it’s getting worse. Violence, hunger and disease have become facts of life for millions. More can be done to alleviate their suffering, and more must be done. Syrians cannot afford for next year to be just like this year.

At least 30 people were killed and many others wounded on Tuesday December 24, 2013 after Syrian army helicopters dropped 'barrel bombs' on Aleppo. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jim Murphy is shadow international development secretary and Labour MP for East Renfrewshire

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Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from the club bar to chip shops to the office of the miners’ union itself.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. While the fuel still accounts for around 10 per cent of UK electricity generation on any given day, last year generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s. The need to decarbonise also looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt in Wales: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. Meanwhile, in Appalachia, mining companies dish out licence plates and stickers saying: Shoot a tree hugger.

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while Club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have also fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement. But he also believes that British coal has its place in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a place that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining. The government has yet to act, but this may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.