Humanitarian Assistance and the Syria Crisis

Anne C. Richard
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
Bethlehem, PA
November 3, 2013

Thank you, Henri for that kind introduction. I want to thank you for holding this workshop and bringing attention to the escalating crisis in Syria. Events like this one are a critical part of the effort to raise awareness about the tragic and horrific nature of this crisis and energize people to act. I hope you will forgive me in advance for enlisting you all as allies in these efforts.

This crisis is vastly different than just a year ago—and alarmingly so. Last fall we were concerned about a refugee population of about 250,000 people. Today it stands at over two million – nearly 10 times that number. Combined with another five million people now uprooted inside Syria, nearly one third of Syria’s population is displaced. Nearly half of the country’s population is in need of humanitarian assistance.

What is it like for the countries neighboring Syria to see so many Syrians appearing in their streets and shops and schools? Competing for jobs? And how do those left behind inside Syria manage to survive cut off from any semblance of normal life and knowing that on any day they might be killed?

The large numbers of those in need are shocking by themselves, but behind them are millions of individual tragedies.

In my own travels, I have met families literally shattered by the violence –children traumatized by what they’ve witnessed, elderly people in need of medical attention, families whose fathers and husbands have gone missing. What is often lost in media reports about the horrors of war is the fact that millions of ordinary people are stuck in the middle of this conflict and urgently need assistance.

Tonight, I’d like to talk about the challenges faced by aid workers trying to reach and help innocent civilians whose lives are in jeopardy because of the war in Syria. Humanitarian agencies are struggling to reach populations across Syria, mainly because of a concerted effort by the Assad regime to obstruct assistance. And I’d like to describe the urgent need to assist neighboring countries, such as Lebanon, which need not only humanitarian aid but also development assistance. One of my chief conclusions will be that we are in danger of losing a generation of Syrian children. Finally, I’ll be sure to talk about the role of the United States in the humanitarian effort.

Humanitarian Access

First, let me outline what is prompting people to flee and then explain what aid workers are doing to help those at risk inside Syria. The world already knows that Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons, snipers, arbitrary detentions, rape, and torture against his own citizens. Some die from being caught in the cross-fire of battle. Others are pulverized by so-called barrel bombs, made of oil drums packed with scrap metal and explosives and then dropped from planes.

What is far less well known, and equally intolerable, is the systematic denial of medical assistance, food supplies, and other humanitarian aid to people living in many besieged areas. There are now reports of malnutrition in cities that are blockaded by the regime. This flagrant violation of international humanitarian norms must end before the war's death toll -- now surpassing 100,000 -- reaches even more catastrophic levels.

Simply put, the world must act quickly and decisively to get life-saving assistance to the innocent civilians who are bearing the brunt of the civil war.

Those of you following this crisis closely undoubtedly know that inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are working in regime-controlled areas to collect and destroy chemical weapons, with assistance from Russia and others.

Secretary of State John Kerry has noted the following: “If weapons inspectors can carry out their crucial mission to ensure Syria's chemical weapons can never be used again, then we can also find a way for aid workers on a no less vital mission to deliver food and medical treatment to men, women, and children suffering through no fault of their own.”

The heroism of Syria’s aid workers has to be commended. Most are courageous Syrians, including thousands of volunteers with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, who work on all sides of the often shifting battle lines to save thousands of lives. In return, they have been subjected to a catalog of horrors. They have been harassed, kidnapped, killed, and stopped at every turn from reaching the innocent civilians. The obstacles exist on both sides of the war. Extremist opposition fighters have also prevented aid from reaching those in need, diverted supplies and carried out acts of violence against civilians.

But it is the regime's policies that have turned civil conflict and disaster inside Syria into a regional crisis of historic proportions. The Assad government is refusing to issue visas for humanitarian workers and blocking legitimate Syrian aid agencies from working with the international community. It is blocking assistance at its borders. It is requiring UN convoys to travel circuitous routes through scores of checkpoints to reach people in need. Perhaps most alarming, the regime has systematically blocked food shipments to strategically located districts. This is particularly true for the community of Mouadhamiyah, located near Damascus.

For almost one full year, according to the UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, the regime has blocked UN convoys from entering that community. Thousands of civilians remain trapped. YouTube videos depict severely malnourished young children. Residents have reportedly turned to eating leaves from olive trees. A local Muslim cleric issued a religious edict authorizing residents to eat dogs – normally forbidden in Islam. News reports this week quote regime officials as calling this approach a "Starvation until Submission Campaign,” blocking food, medicine and other goods from entering and people from leaving Mouadhamiyah and other besieged areas of Syria.

This is why the United States is working to capitalize on a Presidential Statement in which UN Security Council came together -- despite their well-known differences -- to call on all parties to respect obligations under international humanitarian law. While the so-called Presidential Statement does not carry the weight of a Security Council Resolution, it was approved by Security Council members and does set out a series of steps that, if followed, would go a long way in protecting and helping the Syrian people. Convoys carrying aid need to be expedited and relief operations expanded. Those providing medical care to the wounded and the sick must be granted safe passage. And attacks against medical facilities and personnel must stop.

A key part of the solution is putting increased international pressure on the regime to live up to the Security Council statement. Asking them to do so without concerted international pressure is, I regret to say, unrealistic. The Assad regime gassed its own people and systematically denies them food and medicine —so without outside pressure, the misery will continue.

Assad's backers in Russia and Iran and any others who might influence his calculations must demand that he allow humanitarian aid agencies greater access to the Syrian people. With winter nearly here, and the rolls of the starving and sick growing daily, we can waste no time. Aid workers must have full access to do their jobs now.

Neighboring Countries

I mentioned earlier that this has grown into a regional crisis. Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey deserve great credit for hosting the vast majority of the two million refugees on their territories. Syrian refugees have crossed into Iraq and Egypt and traveled even farther afield. Some of those fleeing are Iraqis, who fled violence in Iraq to find sanctuary in Syria as refugees, and now must flee again. Palestinians who were living in Syria have also fled, chiefly to Lebanon, because their neighborhoods in Syria were caught between fighting forces and became battlegrounds.

Turkey has built more than 20 camps, and even more Syrians live in Turkish cities. Informally, some referred to the camps as “five-star” because they offered a high level of comfort in contrast to most refugee camps around the world, but the passage of time has worn down the infrastructure of the camps and frayed the nerves of camp refugees. We are grateful that Turkey is also starting to register Syrians in urban areas and providing them access to free medical care. Turkey also continues to provide humanitarian assistance, including medical assistance, food, and shelter, to internally displaced persons waiting in Syria to cross the border into Turkey.

In Jordan, refugees were initially held in short-term transit centers before being allowed to be “bailed-out” or sponsored by relatives, friends or even strangers. Over time, however, the Government of Jordan concluded that a camp should be constructed to hold the growing number of refugees. A year ago, that camp was desert and rocks. Today, Za’atri camp is the size of a major city. The United Arab Emirates has constructed a much smaller second camp that opened in April, a larger third camp at Azraq has been constructed in case another large wave of refugees arrives.

And, as you can imagine, the influx of refugees has affected every aspect of life. Lebanon and Jordan have opened up hospitals and clinics, gone to double-shifts to accommodate refugee children in already over-crowded schools. Both countries need support for their power, water, and sewage infrastructure and help to keep their economies stable and functioning.

The need to help Syria’s neighbors is perhaps most pressing in Lebanon, a country with an already fragile political situation and which is now hosting more refugees than any other country: 800,000 registered refugees who are now crowding into a country of just 4.2 million people. That means that nearly one in five of Lebanon’s residents are now Syrian refugees. That would be like suddenly accepting 15,000 new residents of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, swelling its population from 75,000 to 90,000. Imagine the 15,000 arrived as undergraduates here at Lehigh – thus quadrupling the size of the undergraduate population overnight without providing additional dorms, bathrooms, classrooms or cafeteria space. A recent World Bank study reported that since the beginning of the Syria crisis, an additional 170,000 Lebanese have been pushed into poverty, which is a terrible reward for the very generous impulse to take in the refugees. As UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres has stated, “there is now not a single village or town in Lebanon that has not been affected by the presence of refugees from Syria.”

In Lebanon, refugees are living, not in UNHCR-run camps, where assistance could be provided, but instead in squalid vacant lots, abandoned buildings, or hastily erected unofficial camps with open sewage, no access to running water, electricity, schools, or health facilities. Despite all the challenges, and to its great credit, Lebanon has kept its border open to those fleeing the conflict in Syria. Lebanon’s steadfast commitment to the international humanitarian principle of open borders serves as an example to the region.

What all this means for the major donor countries – the international leaders in funding humanitarian response, is that at the same time that we help Syrian refugees, we must also invest in Lebanon’s and Jordan’s longer-term development needs and thus help avoid instability, strife, and economic collapse.

As the conflict rages on, we must encourage all governments in the region to continue to support all those seeking protection. In order for these countries to continue taking in refugees, however, the international community must be there to support them through this challenging time.

No Lost Generation

One of our top goals is to avert the threat of a “lost generation” of Syrian children. According to UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, studies on education and conflict show those who are educated promote peace and reconciliation after the conflict. Unfortunately, half of all Syrian children no longer attend school due to displacement, violence, and economic necessity. I’ve mentioned that schools in some of the neighboring countries have been overwhelmed because Syrian children outnumber local schoolchildren. Even when Syrian children are allowed to enroll in local schools, they often do not attend because of cultural or linguistic barriers, as in Turkey, or because they work to support their families. There may also be a perception that there are security risks in walking to school, particularly for girls.

And the trauma children experience is severe: Three out of four Syrian kids have witnessed acts of armed violence; many have been the victims of that violence, and suffer psychological trauma or terrible wounds. Drawings these children create depict enormous sadness and violence. Aid workers see disturbing increases in the incidence of sexual abuse, the torture of children, the recruitment of child soldiers, as well as forced child marriage and pregnancy -- both within Syria’s borders and in refugee settings.

For these reasons, we need to redouble efforts to get help to children. Their families need assistance so that the children do not have to work. We want to protect them from sexual predators and exploitative labor practices, make sure they are attending school, and support the construction of playgrounds and so-called child friendly spaces. We must help them begin to heal from the trauma of war.

Michael Klosson, Vice President of Save the Children, recently told me of meeting with refugees in Amman. He said he met one 10-year old girl who now lives in east Amman with her family. She described how her father, a taxi driver, has been missing in Syria for a year. Despite everything she has endured, she wants to grow up to be a doctor because, she said: “If something happens to you or someone dear to you, you can help them.” We need to make sure that this little girl and her noble ambitions are not lost. Hers is the future orientation we need to nurture in these kids. They could be the future leaders of Syria.

U.S. Efforts

A description of the challenges resulting from the war in Syria and its spillover to neighboring countries – and I’ve sketched out just a few of them – leads us to the question of what the United States is doing.

The U.S. has provided more than $1.3 billion in humanitarian assistance since the crisis began, more than any other donor. Our aid – channeled through UN organizations and reputable, international non-governmental organizations – is saving lives both inside and outside Syria. UN agencies such as UNHCR, the World Food Program, and UNICEF are providing leadership and expertise. The bureau I lead at the State Department, the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, and counterpart offices at USAID lead the world in funding these organizations. We also fund the International Committee of the Red Cross (or ICRC) which is independent of the UN but also plays a role in delivering aid, teaching combatants about the laws of war, re-unifying families and seeking to visit prisoners in detention.

Beyond food, medical care and other traditional assistance, along with USAID, we are using innovative methods to address the urban refugee populations – providing electronic debit cards for use in local markets and to help refugees pay rent.

Sexual and gender based violence against women and children is a particular challenge, both in refugee camps and throughout the conflict zone, which is one reason that Secretary Kerry on September 23 announced a new global initiative called Safe from the Start with $10 million of initial U.S. funding. The initiative seeks to build the capacity of aid organization to take action to prevent violence against women and girls from the very onset of an emergency. It is an initiative that we will seek to implement in response to several crises but the Syria crisis provides, sadly, plenty of examples of why such an initiative is needed.

I spoke about Lebanon earlier and, of the $1.3 billion in aid the United States has provided, over $254 million in humanitarian assistance has been allocated to mitigate the strain on that country. We have not only delivered “stuff” – like food, water, shelter, clothes, water, and blankets – but medical services, education support, and trauma counseling. The U.S. has helped improve water and sanitation so that both Lebanese and refugees have clean water.

And because we recognize Lebanon’s development challenges, Secretary Kerry last month announced an additional $30 million to directly respond to growing needs in Lebanon’s communities as identified in a World Bank roadmap. We encourage other donors to do the same.

All of this is to say that, while the hurdles to assisting Syrians are many, we are helping millions and saving many, many lives. Americans can be proud that we are the largest donor nation to the Syrian crisis and that we are the largest donor worldwide to humanitarian assistance.

This is where many of you come in. The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development are proud to carry out our missions to save lives and mitigate suffering, but we cannot – and should not – do this work without robust support from you. I would urge you to take the next step in your commitment by talking to your friends and family about the scope of this crisis and the urgency of the issues I’ve outlined tonight – about the need for humanitarian access, the importance of the aid we direct to humanitarian organizations, the development needs of neighboring countries, and particularly the need for a negotiated solution for this conflict.

I would also note that Syrians urgently need private Americans to donate. Those interested in making private contributions can learn about the best ways to give at USAID’s Center for International Disaster Information at . Or, make a donation to a charity of their choice working in the region. A list is available at


It is well known that war is not ended by aid deliveries. Peace must be negotiated, and we salute our colleagues – American diplomats and their counterparts from other countries – who are striving to do so. In the coming weeks, they and we will be negotiating to improve access to Syrians in need. Until we have peace, we will urgently need to continue our work. I look forward to your questions.