From the conference in Brussels – organised by the office of the High Commissioner for foreign policy and common security Federica Mogherini together with Great Britain, Germany, Norway Kuwait and Qatar – comes the promise of a commitment to 6 billion dollars (5.5 billion euros) to be devoted to Syria to cope with the demands of 2017. An “unprecedented number“, as it been has defined at the time of the announcement by the Commissioner for humanitarian aid Chrystos Stylianides.
Caritas agencies called on western countries to do more for Syrian refugees. Speaking at a two-day conference (4-5 April) in Brussels (Belgium) centred on three themes ‘Empower, Protect, Sustain’, they call for action that goes beyond the immediate emergency in favour of long-term plans to build social cohesion and development.
The European Union and the United Nations are hosting the conference, which follows the London meeting last year where US$ 11 billion were pledged in humanitarian aid for the war-torn country.
The head of Caritas Syria, Chaldean Archbishop of Aleppo Mgr Antoine Audo, said “we have international aid” but “if there is no peace the problem remains.” The lack of security creates “weakness, migration,” he said. This is why pledges of support are not enough. Instead, what is needed is “a political solution, a reconciliation process that opens the door to the return of the refugees.”
For the prelate, “One of the main problems is the lack of jobs”. This is tied to “widespread poverty and a high cost-of-living”, which make survival that much harder.
“The situation varies from region to region. In Aleppo, things are calmer now. Water is now available but there is still no electricity. Perhaps this problem will be solved in four months, but for now power is often cut off. Then there is Damascus and its outlying areas, Idlib and Raqqa. Syria is divided into at least five sectors, very different from one another.”
Since March 2011, when civil war broke out, more than five million people fled to neighbouring countries. At least 400,000 have died in the violence, which displaced almost half of the country’s population. The European Union estimates that in Syria itself 13.5 million Syrians need humanitarian aid.
Speaking about the displaced, Mgr Audo highlighted the differences among them. “Some rich families found refuge in Lebanon and Europe, especially the young. Others sought work and stability. In this case, especially among the young, it is difficult to imagine a return to the country of origin, and this is a serious problem because it will deprive Syria of a key group for its development and future renaissance.”
Another issue concerns the increasingly difficult fate of assets and properties left in Syria by all those who fled abroad in search of safety, including many Christians.
Meantime, the United Nations say that € 3.4 billion (US$ 3.6 billion) is needed for internal humanitarian aid this year, and € 4.7 billion (US$ 5 billion) is required for refugees.
Turkey, which was invited to the Brussels conference but was a no-show, has taken in about three million refugees, Lebanon more than a million (out of a total of 4.5 million). Jordan has about 600,000, but Jordanian authorities say the real number exceeds a million. Experts warn that the priority should be on using the funds for longer-term development of Syrian refugees.
Caritas hopes that the meeting in the Belgian capital can deliver a new deal by providing more investment to neighbouring countries hosting refugees to create employment opportunities and stimulate economic growth that benefit both refugees and host communities alike.
It is necessary to organise aid in “a spirit of justice and co-operation,” said the Chaldean Archbishop of Aleppo. “In the eastern part of the city held by the rebels for years, we started with Caritas a series of activities that seem to work.”
The Catholic charity has focused its efforts on five points, with education and health care as the top priority. “We handed out food parcels and aid to families in [Aleppo’s] eastern sector. We are working on rebuilding houses destroyed in the war,” Archbishop Audo explained. “Similar steps are being taken in Damascus as well, although health is the priority in the capital. We are working on jobs like electricians, masons, to give young people some professional future.”
“For reconstruction and reconciliation to get underway, an agreement between the US and Russia is necessary. The Syrian crisis is in the hands of the two powers; it is up to them to find a way to peace.”
Meanwhile, most of the refugees survive in makeshift settlements on farmland in Lebanon, in cramped flats in Jordan, or emergency shelters in Turkey. This precarious situation makes jobs, education, and health care that more urgent.
Governments in the region should develop policies to help refugees support themselves economically, finding a job without risking jail as illegal migrants. This way, experts believe refugees could contribute to the economic development of host communities.
“In Lebanon, for example, the Lebanese are often the ones already employing Syrians informally,” said Alan Thomlinson, Programme Manager for Syria of the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD).
“Apart from jobs, there is also a need to lift legal and political barriers that put refugees outside the law and deprived them of educational opportunities as well as basic services such as healthcare,” he added.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said Monday that Syria would need an initial US$ 10.7 billion to US$ 17.1 billion to revive agricultural production, depending on how the conflict plays out.
It estimated that the war has caused more than billion in lost crop and livestock production and farming assets.
During that same period, the UN agency has provided assistance to some 2.4 million Syrians in rural areas and on the outskirts of cities like Aleppo, Homs and Damascus.