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Lack of peace deal prolongs Syria’s humanitarian crisis – expert
December 31, 2013, 7:04 am

Many Syrian Refugees are at risk as temperatures drastically fall in the Middle East, the UN says [Xinhua]

Many Syrian Refugees are at risk as temperatures drastically fall in the Middle East, the UN says [Xinhua]

The year 2013 ended with the Syrian refugee crisis continuing to pose a challenge for the UN and international aid agencies seeking to provide food, shelter and medicines to millions of displaced people.

There is a similar urgency in the Philippines, which was battered by super Typhoon Haiyan on November 8. Tens of thousands in remote areas are still awaiting relief, while a greater number are homeless and/or displaced.

The BRICS Post spoke with Shaheen Chughtai, the Deputy Head of Humanitarian and Security Issues at Oxfam‘s Campaigns and Policy Division, about the growing need for international relief and a global response to humanitarian crises.

Chughtai just returned from the Philippines where relief efforts are ongoing.

The BRICS Post: What are the most topical crises areas around the world that Oxfam has identified for 2014?

Chughtai: As we enter 2014, the Syria conflict remains a particular concern because of the scale of human need and the risk of conflict and instability spreading further across the region.

Instability and conflict in parts of central and east Africa is also very worrying.

How does Oxfam assess these situations?

Oxfam works in about 90 countries, often in partnership with local organisations and communities, and this helps us to monitor trends and developments around the world constantly.

The UN has appealed for more support on Syria, but that has been slow in coming. How does the new year bode for Syria?

The recently revised $6.5 billion aid appeal is the biggest ever appeal for a country and highlights not only the scale of human need but also the unsustainable nature of the emergency.

The previous aid appeal for Syria was only 60 per cent funded with several governments failing to honour their pledges or contributing too little.

That shortfall plus various obstacles hindering access to aid means families in Syria and refugees are struggling to obtain enough assistance, while the conflict continues to spread into neighbouring countries and undermine regional stability.

So, the future looks very worrying unless the international community, including regional states, put aside their differences and work more effectively to bring a negotiated peace to Syria.

Despite global mobilisation to assist those displaced by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, tens of thousands are still homeless [Getty Images]

Despite global mobilisation to assist those displaced by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, tens of thousands are still homeless [Getty Images]

What are the biggest challenges OXFAM faces in getting aid to the most needy?

Challenges can vary greatly. In the Philippines typhoon response, for example, the widespread damage or destruction to airports, seaports, roads, and bridges, as well as the millions of tonnes of debris blocking roads presented extreme logistical obstacles for affected communities and the aid organisations trying to reach them.

We’ve had to overcome similar challenges in various floods, earthquakes and cyclones around the world.

The challenges of providing aid in a conflict-affected region are often different. Here the level of cooperation and facilitation by the government and other conflict parties often determines how easily people can receive assistance.

Are some governments hostile? How do you deal with them in such situations?

Unfortunately, some governments do display hostility and place obstacles between people in need of assistance and the aid organisations trying to help them. How we deal with this situation depends on the reason for the hostility.

It may be possible, for example, to address a lack of understanding or trust by explaining our work or demonstrating our effectiveness and impartiality.

But if a government or armed group is determined to block humanitarian aid because this suits their political agenda – such as preventing aid reaching a community associated with a political rival – then aid organisations may find there is little they can do without pressure from other influential parties.

How does the situation in Syria differ from the Philippines, where super storm Haiyan recently struck and killed thousands?

It’s difficult to compare the global response to the two situations because the context is so different.

Firstly, the Philippines typhoon disaster is new whereas the Syrian conflict has required sustained humanitarian aid for more than three years.

Secondly, international military support for aid operations was welcome and helpful in the Philippines disaster but could be dangerous and counterproductive in the Syria conflict.

Additionally, the international community can support recovery and reconstruction in the Philippines now whereas opportunities for this are very limited in Syria without a durable peace agreement.

What is the present situation regarding the Philippines and relief efforts there?

The Typhoon Haiyan response has seen considerable progress but there is still much to do – both to make sure everyone who needs immediate assistance gets that help but also to rebuild devastated  communities.

A key success has been preventing, so far, a public health emergency despite the destruction of local hospitals, clinics, and water supplies. In total, more than five million people have received some kind of help from the Philippines authorities and numerous aid organisations, especially food assistance, but also clean water, sanitation facilities, shelter, and healthcare.

But the relief effort must expand faster. Millions of people have received little or no official aid, especially in remote, rural areas. Moreover, they have multiple needs. Some people have received help to buy food, for example, but need additional support to restore safe water supplies or revive their livelihoods.

Are people still living in temporary shelters?

There are approximately four million people who are still homeless. Most of them are living in makeshift shelters, which is a big concern. In much of the disaster zone, the rainy season is due to start in late January – in some areas it’s been raining heavily already. So, safe, practical solutions are urgently needed.

Approximately 100,000 are still in some kind of evacuation centre – including vacated schools and colleges. But with schools due to reopen on 6 January, they also need appropriate alternatives fast.

You mentioned recently that Manila must include poverty reduction in its disaster relief plans. How would that work?

Poverty and disasters are closely linked. If you’re poor, you’re more likely to live in a makeshift shack, in a hazardous area like a flood-prone riverbank, with no insurance or savings to fall back on. So, when a typhoon or earthquake strikes, the damage is greater and poor people are left even poorer and more vulnerable to the next shock.

The post typhoon recovery must break this cycle. It can do this spearheading an ambitious, green, economic redevelopment of the disaster zone that gives poor people more job options, raises incomes, and provides more access to safety nets including insurance. The government can provide appropriate infrastructure as well as incentives such as tax breaks to encourage suitable companies to invest.

Damage to the environment is part of the problem in the Philippines. Coastal mangrove forests can act as a natural defence against tsunamis and storm surges, for example, but have been decimated by deforestation. Damaged eco-systems also increase poverty, for example, by reducing the catch of poor fisher folk. So, the Philippines government should ensure the economic development not only prioritises poor people but is environmentally sustainable.

Any reconstruction strategy claiming to “build back better” and reduce disaster risks but fails to reduce poverty is inherently flawed.

How has the global response been on the Philippines?

The global response has been very generous and effective so far. After one month, international donors had provided $454 million to the UN-coordinated appeal. The public in many countries has raised generous sums too.

The main UK public appeal, for example, raised $120 million within a month. Several countries have also provided useful military assets and personnel to support the relief effort.