Syria on brink of 'a staggering humanitarian disaster'

Tue, Jan 15, 2013, 00:00

Syria and the surrounding countries face “a staggering humanitarian disaster”, according to the US-based International Rescue Committee.

After nearly two years of civil war in Syria, the organisation, a non-governmental group that provides emergency assistance, says the situation there requires planning and funding for a long-term crisis. Critical needs must be met and sectarian tensions addressed in order to avert instability, it said yesterday.

In a 28-page report based on interviews with Syrian refugees, the IRC describes how Syrians are driven from their homes by shifting front lines in the conflict between the army and rebel militias, bombing and shelling, and sectarian cleansing. Leaving all their possessions behind, families often move from place to place in search of security but find none. The majority of the internally displaced have congregated around a dozen cities caught up in the war.

Resources stretched

Some 600,000 have become refugees in neighbouring countries where resources are increasingly stretched. Lebanon has taken in 200,000, Jordan 176,500, Iraq 69,000, and Turkey 151,000.

The total could swell to a million in the coming six months.

Some 70 per cent of Syrian refugees, who face punishing and perilous conditions reaching and crossing borders, are living in cities and towns rather than camps. Only in Turkey is the majority (69 per cent) dwelling in camps while in Lebanon there are no camps.

“While some [urban refugees] are housed by host families in cramped quarters, most are renting small, dilapidated unfurnished apartments that . . . they cannot afford. Others [live] in sheds, barns, basements and abandoned buildings . . . or in unused public spaces,” the IRC says.

Although refugees face high levels of domestic violence and unsafe conditions in camps, many interviewed by the IRC “cited rape as a primary reason their families fled the conflict”. Women and girls related how they were assaulted “by armed men” in their homes or in public, “sometimes by multiple perpetrators”. Roadblocks are “especially perilous”. Since rape brings shame upon families, assaults are not reported.

Rape victims

The IRC was “told of a father who shot his daughter when an armed group approached to prevent the ‘disgrace’ of her being raped”. Victims of rape or torture rarely receive psychological and moral support they require to heal.

Refugee girls are being married off to “protect” them, pro- vide rape victims with husbands, or reduce the number of mouths to feed.

Children and youths “are traumatised by the violence they have experienced and witnessed and are gravely affected by their families’ upheaval” and lack of education. Children are also “at risk of abuse, neglect and exploitation”, states the report. Boys are being sent to work in quarries in north Lebanon, girls are resorting to prostitution to buy food.

The IRC said four million Syrians are “in dire need of assistance” which has not been forthcoming.

At the end of last year, the UN increased its appeal to $1.5 billion to cover Syrian needs through the first half of 2013 although the 2012 target of $835 million had not been met. The total provided by the US, EU and Britain was about $622 million.

In advance of a donor conference, the IRC urges the Obama administration, in particular, to make certain that women and girls “who have experienced unspeakable violence . . . are heard, cared for and protected from further harm”.