March 24, 2013

Relief Charities Brave Intense Fighting to Help Displaced Syrians

Photograph by B. Sokol/UNHCR

Not since the Balkan wars of the 1990s have aid groups been asked to undertake what they’re now doing in Syria: providing humanitarian relief in the midst of a long-running conflict with periods of intense fighting.

That’s according to Joel Charny, a vice president at InterAction, the umbrella group for humanitarian charities. Roughly 60 aid groups—20 of them InterAction members—are helping Syrian refugees and people displaced by violence within the country.

The number of refugees officially reached 1 million this month, according to the United Nations, though the actual number is likely much higher. Most have crossed into Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, or Turkey.

At Iraq’s Domiz camp, refugees—most of them women and children—are sharing tents because the site is so overcrowded. As of early March, about 113,000 Syrians had fled to Iraq.

“The conditions are pretty bleak,” says Jana Mason, a senior adviser at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Money to buy blankets, transport medical supplies, run camps, hire drivers, and handle a host of emergency needs has been hard to come by. Only about 20 percent of a $1-billion appeal issued in January by the U.N. refugee agency and other groups has been met.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has received about $5-million in cash and products from private donors. The International Rescue Committee, which is helping to manage Iraq’s Domiz camp, has brought in about $500,000 from private donors and $40-million from governments and U.N. agencies.

Safety is a huge issue. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime expelled the International Rescue Committee without explanation a year before the war broke out. The organization is operating through local Syrian charities to send medical supplies and household items to hospitals and displaced people within the country, says Michael Young, regional director.

Aid groups have faced criticism that assistance is helping to prop up President Assad, but relief workers say that’s not the case. Mr. Young estimates that about 70 percent of the supplies sent via his group are reaching areas dominated by opposition forces. Ms. Mason says the U.N. refugee agency has driven three aid convoys through Damascus to parts of the country held by rebels.

With no end to the conflict in sight, aid workers say it’s important that Syria’s neighbors keep their borders open to refugees and that donor nations contribute money.

Says Ms. Mason: “We need a lot of international solidarity.”

Here, a physician working for Doctors Without Borders talks to a Syrian family that has just arrived at the Domiz camp.­

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