Syrian humanitarian crisis demands new perspective on emergency response

Jordan, Lebanon, Syria

October 10, 2013

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  • A large part of our work with Syrian refugees is focused on helping children recover from trauma so they can continue learning, stay away from violence and have a productive future. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

This week I had the honor of speaking at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. about the Syrian humanitarian crisis. The venue affords the unique opportunity to speak directly, and in person, with leaders and journalists who are shaping the world’s understanding of this escalating disaster.

The Syrian war is the most complex humanitarian crisis Mercy Corps has ever faced. The numbers themselves are simply staggering: 2.1 million Syrian refugees have fled the conflict to neighboring countries, primarily Jordan and Lebanon. More than half of them are children. And it’s going from bad to worse: The United Nations estimates that the number of refugees will grow to 3.5 million by year’s end.

As one of the lead organizations responding to the emergency, it is crucial that we raise awareness of the massive needs — needs we can only fully address with a collective, international effort, from individual citizens to world leaders.

I specifically expressed Mercy Corps’ concern that if we continue to deal with this crisis as a short-term disaster instead of a long-term effort, the region will face even more severe consequences.

Syria is by far our largest global program, and so far we have directly reached 2 million Syrians devastated by the civil war. We are helping meet immediate needs for water, sanitation, food and shelter, while also focusing on longer-term support: strengthening infrastructure to increase water distribution; helping children cope with trauma and continue learning; and working to ease tensions between host communities and refugees.

But so much more must be done.

Host communities bear an unsustainable burden as hundreds of thousands of refugees compete for scarce jobs, resources and services. We need to deliver aid in a way that tackles these and other long-term issues. There is currently no end in sight for this conflict. To achieve our goal as humanitarians, we must view the crisis for what it is: a long-term global challenge that threatens the stability of the region.

I asked the U.S. Congress to increase the allocation of flexible funding that can be spent on longer-term programs such as water infrastructure, jobs creation and other development projects.

And I asked the international community to do the following:

  1. First and foremost, step up and meet the United Nations’ call for $4.4 billion in aid funding. Currently, only 40% has been pledged.
  2. Support Syria’s neighboring countries, politically and financially, to alleviate the burden of hosting millions of refugees.
  3. Respect the United Nations’ guiding principles of humanitarian emergency assistance and their call to provide greater humanitarian access.

While a political solution is in the hands of others, there is the power in each of us to help ease the suffering of millions of Syrians.

Mercy Corps supporters have shown their amazing compassion yet again, helping us raise nearly $4 million to help refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. But every day there are more families who cross the border. We need to expand our relief efforts and build on long-term programs to meet their needs; your contribution helps us do even more.

We also rely on individuals like you to speak up and influence our leaders. With more people displaced by conflict than at any other time in 18 years — including the 7 million Syrians at the heart of this crisis — we simply cannot afford to let the U.S. scale back our humanitarian assistance programs. You can tell your Congressperson to fight for the kind of flexible funding necessary to help those most in need.

After years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now a budget battle that has shut down our federal government, some may hesitate to get involved in another crisis abroad. We are being tested, but I know that ramping up a bigger humanitarian response is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.

I believe there is a seamless web of compassion that connects us all, from a homeless child in this country to a hungry child in a Syrian refugee camp. The better job we do taking care of people, the better the prospects for a safe Syria where people can expect a better future for their kids. That means a more peaceful and stable region. And that means a better, safer world for all of us.

Watch the video and read Neal's full remarks ▸

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