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.