The European Union and dozens of donor nations have pledged a total of $7.7 billion to help tackle the humanitarian crisis deepening in Syria and neighbouring countries hosting millions of Syrian refugees as the coronavirus pandemic and economic crises compound the misery of nearly a decade of civil war.
EU Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarcic announced on Tuesday the total at the end of a day-long online pledging conference organised by the EU and United Nations.
“We have today expressed solidarity with the Syrian people, not only with words but with concrete pledges of support that will make a difference for millions of people,” Lenarcic said.
The war in Syria has killed more than 400,000 people and sparked a refugee exodus that has destabilised neighbouring countries and impacted Europe. Around 11 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, and some 9 million don’t have enough to eat. More than half of the population have no jobs.
International anti-poverty organisation Oxfam said the amount pledged fell short of what is needed.
“The pledges made by donor governments are simply not enough to address the Syrian crisis with 1 million people at risk of starvation inside the country, and Covid-19 and an economic downturn hitting refugees and host communities in neighbouring countries hard," said Marta Lorenzo, Oxfam's Middle East and North Africa regional director.
UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria Imran Riza, speaking from Qamishli in northern Syria, underscored the problems.
“We are on the cusp of all these multiple crises,” Riza said. “You see kids that are clearly now getting malnourished. You are seeing levels of malnutrition that we have never seen in the last nine years and this gets worse and worse if you don’t take action right now.”
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas pledged $1.8 billion on Germany’s behalf as he, too, warned that the global pandemic was exacerbating the grim realities of life in war-shattered Syria.
“Access to humanitarian assistance is even further restricted,” he said during the virtual donor conference. “And health facilities that lie in ruins cannot attend to the enormous needs. Today, we can demonstrate that the world cares, that the people of Syria are not forgotten.”
Britain’s International Development Secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, pledged 300 million pounds to support areas including education, food and fighting the coronavirus.
“We cannot and will not ignore the scale of the coronavirus threat in Syria, which has already been ravaged by almost a decade of conflict,” Trevelyan said.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell announced that EU institutions would donate $2.6 billion for this year and next.
Perhaps wary of the state of coronavirus-ravaged national coffers, the EU and the UN, joint chairs of the conference, underlined that they did not set a fixed pledging target.
UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock said about $10 billion is needed and that raising $5.5 billion “would not be a bad outcome.”
Lenarcic said at the end of the conference that $5.5 billion of the money pledged on Tuesday would be available this year and $2.2 billion for next year and beyond.
UN officials will still press for more pledges throughout the year and have time as the money is split between 2020 and 2021.
Adding to Syrians' hardship, an economic slump and Covid-19 lockdown have pushed food prices more than 200 percent higher in less than a year, according to the World Food Programme.
The EU has reported that in 2019 donors contributed 8.9 billion euros ($10 billion) in grants to Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
The United Nations currently requires about $3.8 billion for its Syria-related work.
Speakers at Tuesday's fundraising meeting repeatedly expressed support for Syria's neighbours housing refugees.
Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said the cost to his country of hosting more than 1 million Syrian refugees has exceeded $40 billion since the conflict began in March 2011 and he warned that the situation is getting worse amid an economic crisis.
Diab called on the UN, the EU and friendly nations to “shield Lebanon from the negative repercussions" of sanctions, such as those imposed on Syria by the Trump administration in mid-June.
Lowcock acknowledged that holding the donor conference at a time when economies around the world have been slammed by the coronavirus was tough.
While less than the almost $10 billion sought by UN agencies, the pledges were higher than expected, given the economic shock of Covid-19 on many governments and shortfalls in other aid appeals, notably for Yemen this month.
“We recognise that circumstances are a bit unusual," he said. "It’s a difficult moment in every country to find the resources necessary to relieve the suffering of the Syrian people, but it’s essential that we do go on doing that work.”
Oxfam's Lorenzo said: “It’s shocking that the international community has failed to recognise the urgency of the situation despite clear calls from Syrian civil society.”
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