Want to save Syrian lives? Step up humanitarian aid

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Safia, 35, taught school in Syria. She fled the conflict for northern Lebanon, where she picks eggplants, strawberries, and “bad, rotten things” as an agricultural day laborer. She earns about $11 for eight hours of back-breaking work.

“The money I was earning from the field didn’t do much, because I have five children,” she told me in her bare room in a concrete-walled, cement-floored building. Safia, whose husband, a civilian who was wounded during shelling and remains in Syria recovering,  faces a constant battle to provide food and shelter for her family. She and her children each receive a monthly food coupon from the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) worth about $27.  To pay her $100 monthly rent, she sells five of the six coupons for $20 apiece. “I keep one coupon for food,” she said.

Refugees throughout Lebanon are facing desperate circumstances, as I found while doing research there in August and September. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, says that funding has only been secured for 44% of the $4.4 billion appeal to help internally displaced people and refugees in Syria and neighboring countries. Such gaps have severe consequences. Next month, UNHCR plans to move to “targeted assistance” in Lebanon: only the most vulnerable 70% of refugees will get food vouchers and basic necessities like detergent and blankets.

As the Syrian crisis rages on, the refugees are rapidly exhausting their meager savings and resources. The prospect of reduced assistance, a crackdown by Lebanese authorities on Syrians working informally, and an inability to find legal employment leaves refugees increasingly desperate and opens the door for exploitation.

In Lebanon, hundreds of thousands of refugees with limited resources squat in makeshift settlements, live with host families, and rent rooms in unfinished buildings. Not penning refugees up in camps is good, but many told me that their existence is fast becoming inhumane and degrading.

Zeina, 20, lives with her mother and six siblings in a dank room in the back of a half-finished concrete building in southern Lebanon. The family depends on charity from local community members and Zeina and her younger siblings seek work to help pay the $100 monthly rent: “My 13- and 15-year-old sisters gather things from the street. They gather trash—iron and steel—and sell it to a man in a car who comes and buys it” for less than $3.

The building owner pressures Zeina for sexual favors. “When I first arrived here he came to me and said, ‘You can give me a bath and I’ll give you a bath. Come home with me to have some fun. You can live in the shelter for free if you do this.’” Now he approaches her regularly. “Ten days before the rent is due he comes to me and asks again. When I say no, he starts yelling.” She has so far successfully refused his advances, though she says that another woman was not so lucky and has since been evicted from the shelter.

Women like Safia and Zeina seem to have been largely forgotten in recent political debates. The need to enforce the international chemical weapons ban should not be diminished. Yet at the UN General Assembly in New York and when Secretary John Kerry again meets Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on September 28, attention should also be given to the vast majority of Syrian victims killed and wounded with conventional weapons, the shortage of humanitarian assistance, and the effects of ongoing displacement.

In Lebanon, the government estimates that Syrian refugees are now more than 20% of the population. Syria’s neighboring countries cannot be expected to bear the full burden of the refugee crisis.

Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey need an infusion of resources to meet critical needs of both refugee and host populations, including health care, education, housing, water and sanitation. Concerned governments should generously assist Syria’s neighbors, but all need to keep their doors open to fleeing asylum seekers.

Concerned governments should also continue to pressure the Syrian regime to allow greater humanitarian access, both across the Syrian border and within the country to opposition-held and contested areas. Governments should support engagement of the UN with the Syrian regime to expand humanitarian aid and should not be deterred from ensuring that civilians inside Syria have access to life-saving assistance.  In addition, armed opposition groups should guarantee security for those providing assistance in areas under their control.

In the coming weeks, there will be ample opportunity for China, Russia, Brazil, Japan and other G20 governments to step up support for the Syrian people and the countries experiencing the impact of the ever-increasing crisis.  During the high-level meetings and general debate at the UN General Assembly beginning September 23, donor countries should greatly increase pledges of financial assistance and ensure the funds are dispersed rapidly and effectively.

Likewise, UNHCR’s Executive Committee meeting on September 30 will be a forum for UN member countries and international financial institutions to respond to the appeal by Syria’s neighbors. In the midst of political wrangling, no one should forget that millions of Syrians continue to suffer day in and day out.  At a minimum, governments can provide the medical care, food, shelter, and other assistance they so urgently need.

Want to save Syrian lives? Step up humanitarian aid

Updated