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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

UN Launches Huge Aid Appeal For Syria

A Syrian man feeds his child in the Arsal refugee camp in the Lebanese Bekaa valley on December 15, 2013. (AFP/Getty Images)

A Syrian man feeds his child in the Arsal refugee camp in the Lebanese Bekaa valley on December 15, 2013. (AFP/Getty Images)

The United Nations is seeking more than $6 billion for humanitarian aid to Syria. The U.N. estimates nearly three-quarters of Syria’s 22.4 million people will need humanitarian aid in 2014.

The appeal coincides with a new study by the International Rescue Committee warning that starvation is now threatening the Syrian population. Bread prices have risen by 500 percent in some areas, according to the report.

There also a huge refugee crisis in neighboring countries. For instance, there are more than 800,000 Syrians in Lebanon.


  • Jim Muir, BBC correspondent in Beirut, Lebanon. He tweets @MuirJim.



This week the United Nations made its biggest request for aid ever for a single conflict. The U.N. is seeking more than $6 billion to help the millions of people who have been affected by the fighting in Syria, some of them still in Syria, some of them have fled. The BBC's Jim Muir joins us from Beirut to discuss. Jim, welcome.

JIM MUIR: Thank you very much, good to be with you.

HOBSON: Well, the U.N. says that nearly three-quarters of the Syrian population, which is about 22 million people, are going to need humanitarian aid next year. It is the biggest appeal the U.N. has ever announced. Does this surprise you, as somebody who's covered this?

MUIR: I don't think it does, really, because the war is grinding on remorselessly, and the victims of it are spilling out all over the place all the time. I spent four days in the last week or so in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon, which is where quite a lot of them are coming to. Lebanon has really been almost flooded with refugees. It's not really in control, one has to say, of its own borders. They're very porous, and that's one reason why a lot of refugees, especially from western Syria, from as far away as Damascus but also from Homs, that whole area, and really the whole western part of Syria, have been able to come across into Lebanon, certainly more than a million of them.

The official registered figure is nearly 850,000, but the actual figure, everybody knows it's well over a million. Some believe it may even be two million in a country whose population isn't much more than four million. So it's a huge burden for a country that's really the least equipped. It's the smallest of Syria's neighbors and the most fragile and the least equipped to deal with this kind of huge deluge.

HOBSON: Well, what are the conditions like for refugees at the camps, including the one that you visited recently?

MUIR: Well, I have to say there are very, very few actual camps as such. The one - I was at one that you could call a camp, but it's only about 70 tents. And conditions there were, in fact, compared with others not too bad because at least they're in a formal situation and they can get aid both from U.N., from Islamic charities and so on.

So the people there were relatively well off in terms of getting stoves, heating fuel and so on, and food, blankets, mattresses, the kind of basics that you need to survive in very harsh winter conditions. But one of the problems is that the Lebanese government does not allow the construction of formal camps, which would make it much easier to administer the refugees. So they are scattered throughout the Bequaa Valley and other parts of Lebanon, camping out in squatter camps, living in really quite dire conditions.

And some of them have been completely bypassed by the aid community simply because they're tucked away. They're inaccessible, and it's very hard to get at some of the most needy people because they don't have the methods to actually declare themselves and make themselves known.

HOBSON: And we're hearing from many people that they feel that the world has forgotten about them. I want to listen to something the U.N.'s humanitarian envoy, Baroness Amos, told your colleague Lyse Doucet about the refugee crisis.

BARONESS VALERIE AMOS: One of the things that Syrians say to me all the time, they've said it to me, refugees in Turkey, refugees in Lebanon, refugees in Jordan, they've said to me, why has the world abandoned us.

HOBSON: Is that your sense as well, Jim Muir?

MUIR: It's certainly something that you hear wherever you go among refugees, though some - and later on, just in the last few hours, I was in another little camp where the people did feel that they had pretty much everything they needed, given that they're exiled from their homes and living in camping conditions, but at least they had heating and so on in their tents.

So the fact is the aid community is really moving mountains to get aid to these people, but there are always corners that are forgotten. And because the previous aid appeals, which themselves, this is back in June, was only roughly like 50 percent, something like 50 percent, funded, it means the aid - people like UNHCR had to actually cut back on what they were giving out to refugees.

So that means that a lot of people who are still very uncomfortable are not getting kind of help and do feel left out.

HOBSON: What about the people inside Syria? We mentioned that many of them are starving at this point, but I assume the conditions are even worse if you're inside than if you get out and manage to get to one of these refugee camps.

MUIR: If you can get out and get to a place like, for example, the huge Zaatari camp in Jordan, at least you're being kept alive and probably being kept relatively warm and so on, although your future may look bleak and hopeless. Those inside Syria, a lot of them are in fact - some of the people I've talked to in the last day or two had spent up to two years, actually, going around from pillar to post (unintelligible) they come over the border into Lebanon with absolutely nothing.

They've exhausted their financial resources, and they arrive with just the clothes they're standing up in in most cases. So they really are desperate, and that gives you some idea of the kind of conditions prevailing inside Syria itself, where a lot of people probably don't have the means to get out across the border, and they're subsisting and surviving where they can.

In some cases in the suburbs around Damascus, for example, they're actually besieged. Food isn't getting in to them. And also there's the issue in the winter, of course, of just staying alive by keeping warm, and that's a very major challenge as well. So a lot of people are having a really very uncomfortable time.

HOBSON: And it's been now about two and a half years since the crisis started. President Assad is still fighting the opposition. Any sense of any changes that might happen in the near future, Jim Muir? Do you think he'll just hold on?

MUIR: Well, it will all focus really now on what they call Geneva 2, which are the peace talks that the U.N. and the big powers are trying to get off the ground in Geneva, or in Switzerland, on the 22nd of January. But really nobody's holding a lot of hope for that because the regime, as you suggest, feels it's making progress on the ground, although I don't think - they'd have to be very optimistic to think they could actually win the war.

But the opposition is in such disarray that it makes the regime almost look good. So there's a huge gap to be bridged there, and nobody is very optimistic that those talks will produce the settlement for which all these refugees are yearning so they can go home.

HOBSON: The BBC's Jim Muir joining us from Beirut, Lebanon. Jim, thank you so much.

MUIR: You're most welcome.

HOBSON: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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