Senior diplomats and U.N. aid officials warned Tuesday that there is no end in sight to the deterioration of living conditions for the millions of Syrians displaced by the four years of civil war in that country.
The United States announced another contribution for emergency food aid to the United Nations’ World Food Program, this one for $125 million, but the news conference by Kelly Clements, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, provided little reason for optimism.
She used familiar terms to describe the disaster, calling it “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis” and “the dire situation facing Syrians.” “The humanitarian need in Syria has never been as great as it is now,” she said, requiring “an urgent collective response.”
What she couldn’t offer was a light at the end of the tunnel. “The U.S. plans to substantially increase its financial commitment to the Syrian humanitarian response,” she said, referring to a donor conference scheduled for the end of March, “and we call on other governments to do the same.”
The World Food Program is feeding nearly 6 million Syrians each month; some 12.2 million people, half that country’s population, are in need of humanitarian assistance.
John Ging, the director of operations for the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, also saw little reason for hope. “The situation continues to deteriorate on the humanitarian side,” he said.
Whether the donor conference will provide some kind of relief is uncertain. The conference, to be held in Kuwait, comes at a time that oil prices have dropped from $120 a barrel to $50 or so, a decline that may make oil-producing nations less generous. Rich Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have been generous contributors to past U.N. humanitarian appeals for Syria.
The United States has contributed more than $3 billion to the humanitarian effort, making it the largest single donor. For 2015, the U.N. has requested $8.4 billion in funds to help nearly 18 million people in Syria and across the region.
The officials also bemoaned their lack of access to many who need assistance, including 600,000 who live in Raqqa and Deir el Zour, two cities controlled by the Islamic State. An estimated 2.8 million of the 12.2 million Syrians in need live in Islamic State areas, and while some assistance has been delivered, it is a difficult and fraught process.
“We have managed to get some aid in,” said Jack Myer, a principal regional adviser for disaster assistance for the U.S. Agency for International Development, referring to Islamic State-controlled areas, “but it requires a very good understanding of both ISIL as well as the context on the ground, and the community.”
The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad can also be a problem. The United Nations Refugee Works Agency has been unable to deliver food in the Damascus neighborhood of Yarmouk since Dec. 6. More than 18,000 people are believed to be trapped there by a government siege.
Myer said government paperwork can be a major obstacle to aid shipments. “Every convoy, every movement has to be confirmed and checked in advance,” he said. “Routes can change at the last minute.”
He said the World Health Organization “has yet to succeed in getting surgical supplies onto convoys because the government removes them from every convoy,” fearing that they might end up in rebel hands.
Pierre Kremer, head of communications at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told McClatchy that working conditions are deteriorating. He noted that 45 IFRC staff and volunteers have been killed over the past four years.
“The safety of our staff is a constant concern,” he said.