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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496