Syria ‘most devastating crisis of the 21st century’, says UN

Humanitarian officials say priority must be given to the humanitarian situation in talks

The situation in Syria is deteriorating rapidly and poses a threat to the peace and security of the region and the world, United Nations humanitarian officials based in Damascus said on Tuesday.

Speaking to the press in Geneva, Yacoub Hillo, the UN's humanitarian co-ordinator in Syria, called the war there "the most devastating crisis of the 21st century". He said half the country's population was internally displaced or in exile, and 67 per cent living in poverty.

“Syrians are almost losing hope that the world cares,” he said, adding that Syrians could no longer “pay the price of political failure” to end the war.

Mr Hillo, of the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said priority must be given to the humanitarian situation in talks between government and opposition representatives in Geneva scheduled for Friday.

Attacks on schools and medical facilities and personnel must stop and access must be given to allow food, medical supplies and vaccination personnel into hard-to-reach areas inhabited by 4.5 million Syrians, he said.

He said that a humanitarian worker had been killed in northern Syria on Monday, the day peace talks were due to begin, the 85th such fatality since the conflict began in 2011.

Funding shortfall

Mr Hillo was sharply critical of wealthy world powers that do not contribute to the humanitarian effort in Syria. He pointed out that costs had risen from $1.4 billion (€1.3 billion) in 2014, to $2.9 billion in 2015, and were expected to increase to $3.8 billion in 2016. But only 50 per cent of the funding had been provided, he said.

“The failure in Syria is not a humanitarian organisations’ failure but a political failure,” he said.

OCHA's New York director of operations John Ging said the organisation required $20 billion in basic funding for humanitarian programmes for people who were "starving and dying", 80 per cent of them in "man-made conflict zones".

He castigated rich countries that did not meet the millennium project goal of donating 0.7 per cent of their gross national product. “Only five countries meet this goal, [the rest] are falling way short.”

Hannah Singer, Unicef representative in Syria on child casualties, said Syria was the most dangerous place in the world to be a child. "Two million children are out of school, 65,000 teachers have been lost to the school system, 35 schools have been attacked this year, and the number of child soldiers is increasing."

The World Health Organisation's Elizabeth Hoff, who has spent four years in Syria, said 60 per cent of public and private hospitals had been destroyed. Displaced people faced cholera while 3.9 million children were in need.

Norwegian Refugee Council chief Jan Egeland said there was no military solution to the Syrian conflict.

“Every hour that is wasted, another 50 Syrian families are displaced,” he said.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times