Witnessing the tragedy that is the Syrian civil war unfolding over the last two years has at times seemed like watching an episodic television series which you can duck in and out of, turn on or tune out, without losing the narrative thread. While the storyline is unremittingly grim it flickers at the back of our consciences, sometimes providing more gripping drama and therefore grabbing more headlines – only to fade to grey once more.
In recent days we have passed a terrible landmark: a million refugees. When I visited some of these desperate souls in Lebanon and Jordan in late December there were less than 400,000 Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries. The expectation was that the million mark would not be reached until the summer.
But winter and intensifying fighting have sent the numbers seeking refuge soaring. We have crossed the million threshold and there are now over 3 million internally displaced – that is, people who have been forced to abandon their homes but have not yet left the country – and four million in need of humanitarian assistance.
When I travelled to the region in December access to the affected population inside Syria was our main concern. Since then the fighting has only got worse and even more people are in need but getting help to them has not become any easier.
In the absence of a political solution there is a risk that humanitarian aid becomes a political football. Shooting at ambulances and relief convoys – already a bitter fact of life for humanitarians in Syria – may even get worse if relief actions are perceived by either side as being “with or against us”. We face a growing concern about the neutrality, impartiality and independence of humanitarian workers.
And we need more money. With the pledges delivered on January 30th at the donors’ conference in Kuwait, the total European Union humanitarian pledge is more than €600 million, of which €436 million has already been delivered in the form of food, medicines, shelter, blankets and warm clothes for the unusually cold winter. €200 million comes from our humanitarian aid budget at the Commission. But there is no end in sight and more funds will soon be needed.
We will come through with additional resources, both for humanitarian aid and to support neighbouring countries to cope with the economic hardship inflicted on their own citizens by this crisis.
But we will be hitting a wall of financial constraints at some point – Syria’s needs are growing and there are other crises needing attention all over the world. Even if we had all the money in the world to ease the suffering of Syrians and their neighbours, patching the wounds of war is not what people need. They need an end to this madness – and only a political solution can deliver that.