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Not Nearly Enough: Assessing The Humanitarian Response to Syria

Now in its sixth year, the Syrian civil war ranks among the greatest humanitarian disasters since World War II. The most recent estimate puts the death toll as high as 470,000, the result of bombings, rocket attacks, air raids, shootings, mass killings, starvation, and exposure to toxic substances, among other causes. In addition to the great loss of life, the conflict has displaced millions: 3 million civilians have fled the country, 6.6 million are internally displaced, and 13.5 million need additional humanitarian assistance.4 Of those who have fled the country, the majority have gone to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. Only ten percent have sought refuge in Europe. Those who remain in Syria not only risk death but also face a greatly diminished quality of life. The fighting has caused such immense destruction that the country has regressed four decades in terms of human development. Four out of five Syrians now live in poverty, and health and educational structures have been damaged or destroyed completely, with at least 4,000 schools ruined or repurposed. An estimated 3 million Syrian children have stopped attending class. Access to healthcare has been drastically restricted, as the majority of Syria’s hospitals have become inopera- tive and the majority of the country’s health professionals have fled to safety.

Such an extensive humanitarian crisis requires an equally extensive humanitarian response. Both inside and outside the country, the UN, various international NGOs, and local NGOs are working to deliver life-saving assistance to Syrian civilians, led by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). The group aims to organize the efforts of national and international humanitarian actors to best “alleviate human suffering” and “ensure a coherent response.” Outside Syria, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees is leading the international humanitarian response. The agency seeks to “safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees” and to help those in need of asylum to find refuge in another state.

But how well are the needs of those affected by this crisis actually being met, and who, if anyone, should be held responsible for the needs that go unmet? After over four years of fighting and several millions of people in need, the blame cannot be placed on a single actor. An unwillingness by outside governments to put the needs of the Syrian people first has allowed the conflict to escalate into the crisis that it is today and has left millions of civilians dead, wounded, or in urgent need of aid.

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