It’s all too easy when reflecting on humanitarian issues today to portray everything as bigger, more complex, more compelling and disastrous than in the past. And there is a risk that with cell phones in the hands of every victim, and a 24-hour news cycle, disastrous events are sensationalised and truths sorted and stretched in the search of a good story. It is little wonder there can be ‘disaster fatigue’ when reporting on people in crisis.
As an organisation founded by doctors and journalists, we are frustratingly aware of how difficult it can be to get the attention of the outside world. Now, as we enter the fifth year of war in Syria, we are tragically reminded of that frustration. Syrian people’s cries for help fill social media, but they have become little more than background noise. But those cries come from so many, and we in Australia should grasp the numbers. Syria’s population is similar to ours: 22 million compared to our 24 million. The recent Failing Syria report—a report authored by 21 NGOs—states that 12 million, or half our population, are in need of humanitarian assistance. Furthermore, the number of Syrian people living in areas difficult or impossible for aid agencies to reach has almost doubled from the 2013 figure of 2.5 million and now stands at 4.8 million – the equivalent of the entire population of Sydney.
"Syrian people’s cries for help fill social media, but they have become little more than background noise"
Never have we faced a more complex, bloody and catastrophic situation. Never before have we faced such a combination of operational constraints in the delivery of life saving medical care. Rarely have we witnessed such brutal violence with no distinction between civilians and combatants, where Government and opposition alike, act with complete impunity committing war crimes laid bare for the world to witness. We have watched towns besieged, barrel bombed, and even bombed with chemicals like Sarin gas and chlorine. Our underground operating theatres piece together men, women and children. The Syrian Government continues to deny aid to those in most need, and the opposition in turn targets civilian populations, isolating and cutting off essential supply chains. Some of the most powerful, like Islamic State, threaten, abduct and kill. Aid workers including Médecins Sans Frontières, have been directly targeted by IS, threatening the little cross border aid that remains. As international aid is locked out, medical staff, hospitals and supplies are attacked for the very life saving help they represent.
As this perfect storm stalls over Syria, the international community charged to restore global peace and security stands by largely unable or unwilling to act. Again, drawing from the ‘Failing Syria’ report, we know that in the past three years, those needing humanitarian assistance inside Syria has increased twelvefold, from 1 million to 12 million. We also know that the 2015 humanitarian funding appeal for Syria, launched as part of the Syria Response Plan in December 2014 that called for $2.9 billion, will fall tragically short. The figure is much closer to $8.4 billion. So when Médecins Sans Frontières called out recently that Syria should be the largest scale medical humanitarian mission for Médecins Sans Frontières and the aid sector we mean exactly that. It is an unacceptable political and humanitarian failure that has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, unimaginable suffering and the largest scale internal and external displacement of people today. In the absence of a political solution – something that seems a long way off yet – we have to do more.
" It is an unacceptable political and humanitarian failure that has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, unimaginable suffering and the largest scale internal and external displacement of people today"
It should be stated that some political progress has been made among UN member States. Australia can claim some credit in pushing for this. Security Council resolution 2139 in February 2014 demanded that all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, allow humanitarian access in Syria across conflict lines, in besieged areas and across borders and expressed the intent to take further steps in the case of non-compliance. Later in July 2014 this was followed by another Security Council resolution (2165) authorising cross-border and cross-line access for the UN and its partners to deliver humanitarian aid in Syria without State consent. However we see little real impact from this. In fact neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have reduced the number of access points where aid can go directly into Syria. UN cross border activities have only reached hundreds of thousands, not the millions of peoples intended. The two most intransient blockages – IS targeting of humanitarian workers and the Governments siege tactics – still have to be overcome.
And yet assistance is not altogether impossible. Médecins Sans Frontières continues to manage six hospitals in opposition held territories, and through these support a network of a hundred more facilities around Syria. There are a large number of Syrians actively trying to set up and manage emergency relief in the absence of international responders. To clearly address the needs in Syria on anything like a proportionate scale will require a political solution. I imagine this will be a bitter one. At the very least some level of workable guarantee is needed now from the top that the parties to the conflict are willing to take practical steps to allow humanitarian access into Syria on all sides of the conflict. Only through re-establishing respect for the basic provisions of Humanitarian Law can the politics of war continue to be waged while at least life saving assistance starts. This is the responsibility of all those backing directly or indirectly those currently at war. And yes, the consequences of not achieving this are more complex, more compelling and more disastrous than in the past.