November 26, 2014

Syria: Political Struggles Stunt Humanitarian Aid Efforts

UN agencies have warned that a mounting humanitarian crisis is occurring in Syria, with an estimated four million people in need of food, water, and adequate shelter. Another 850,000 people are living as refugees in neighboring countries while thousands flee each day. Since the uprising began in March 2011, an estimated 70,000 people have perished due to the conflict1.

In late January, President Obama released a statement that he had authorized an additional $155 million to provide humanitarian relief to the millions of Syrians displaced by the fighting. In his statement, Mr. President said, “The United States has joined with nations around the world in calling for an end to the Assad regime and a transition that leads to a peaceful, inclusive and democratic Syria where the rights of all Syrians are protected”2. America’s contribution has amounted to $365 million to date, but almost a month later has this funding shown visible changes in the immediate needs of the Syrian people? Have their basic human rights to food, clean water, and adequate shelter been protected? UN and other agency reports prove it to be not the case.

Still more is needed from the U.S. and international community to improve the delivery of aid to the Syrian people. Humanitarian aid has slowed to a trickle as numerous problems have severely limited aid efforts. A small war recently developed in Washington as humanitarian groups heatedly opposed a proposal backed by several senators in Congress to turn over millions of aid monies to the Syrian Opposition Coalition3. Efforts in Syria to provide assistance has been just as contentious as rebel forces have refused UN convoys entry from Turkey into northern Syria without their explicit control over the distribution of aid, fearing that the resources would fall into the hands of Assad’s forces.

Meanwhile, thousands of Syrians are left to do nothing but wait for aid that may never arrive or arrive too late. Aside from food shortages, the lack of clean water has contributed to other serious public health concerns. The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that typhoid has broken out in an opposition-held area due to people being forced to drink contaminated water from the Euphrates River. About 2,500 people have been infected by the disease, which can be spread through contact with food and beverages handled by an infected person or by drinking untreated water1.

It’s a sad reminder that humanitarian aid is often embroiled in political conflicts that prevent or create unnecessary delays in delivery of aid to people who need it most. Anne Richard, assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration clearly summarizes this point saying, “Aid is supposed to be delivered not based on one’s political beliefs or which side one’s picking in a war or which faction one belongs to, but instead based on need”3. Asking the UN and other humanitarian aid agencies to provide care and supplies with political stipulations endangers the neutrality of humanitarian aid. Humanitarian aid must remain impartial to government, military and organizational influences. Only then, can aid organizations provide the most equitable care to as many needy people they can reach.

1. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/02/20132200453451511.html

2. http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2013/01/29/president-obama-announces-additional-humanitarian-aid-syrian-people

3. http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/02/13/182998/agencies-warn-congress-not-to.html

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