ShelterBox operations coordinator Phil Duloy is in Beirut, Lebanon meeting with partners and checking on aid distributions. Here he discusses ‘war fatigue’.
Three days ago the United Nations (UN) released a statement to the effect that the chemical weapons attacks against Eastern Ghouta and two other Syrian cities last year were almost certainly the work of Syrian Regime forces. If you remember the news at the time, the USA and France were on the brink of launching a bilateral military campaign, but in the face of mounting criticism decided to wait for confirmation that it really was the Regime that was guilty of crossing this ‘red line’.
Perhaps horror is interesting only when it is new. The dearth of western news coverage of the French and American governments’ (non)reaction to the UN statement over the last 72 hours isn’t because there were no enormous explosions, as usual there were plenty. And it isn’t just because the people trying to cover the horrors keep getting kidnapped and killed – Syria being ranked as the world’s single most dangerous place for journalists. There are many Syrian and international journalists still risking their lives and doing their best to provide material that media outlets could in principle use to cover the conflict.
The paucity of coverage given to the UN statement is largely due to ‘war fatigue’ on Syria. With so many failed Geneva Conferences and such an underfunded humanitarian intervention, it’s hard to believe that the situation is anything but hopeless. People experience war fatigue if the war gets old and doesn’t seem to change. But in fact the war in Syria is changing, fast, for the worse. In the last year, the number of people who have fled starvation, fear and death has more than trebled: UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) stats show that on March 9 2013 there were 834,567 refugees. Six days ago there were 2,544,477 and they might well be considered luckier than the families and friends they left behind.
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Toby Ash (UK) is an experienced ShelterBox Response Team (SRT) member currently responding to the Syria crisis. Nine months after his first deployment to the region, he has returned to find the need for humanitarian assistance greater than ever.
In June last year, I deployed as an SRT member in the Syrian crisis. Nine months later and I am back in the region. The complex political situation in the country we are in remains, so we are still having to work ‘below the radar’, unable to reveal where we are operating from.
Since my last visit, the security situation inside Syria has worsened dramatically and it is now virtually impossible for foreign aid workers to operate directly inside the country. It has also prevented most journalists from reporting there. So, paradoxically, while Syria is the biggest humanitarian disaster in the world today, there is relatively little media coverage given over to it as there are so few reporters on the ground to tell the grim story.
Working in partnership
Despite the huge challenges, ShelterBox is continuing to respond to the crisis. We are currently working in or through four different countries, assisting either the 2.5 million Syrian refugees who have fled the country or channeling aid to 6.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs) left inside who are often too poor and desperate to be able to escape.
The team on the ground here is currently working with local and international partners to facilitate the distribution inside Syria of a shipment of 400 tents and 2,400 blankets that is arriving imminently from the UK. Our task is to ensure that they are distributed to those most in need as quickly as possible.
High tech solutions
Over the last 18 months we have been working with trusted and proven local and international partners who are enabling us to get our much needed aid into Syria. We are able to utilise their comprehensive networks inside the country to both assess the humanitarian need on an ongoing basis and to ensure that all our aid is distributed equitably and solely on the basis of need.
Yesterday we spent the afternoon looking at extraordinarily detailed satellite imagery and mapping of the hundreds of IDP camps on the other side of the border close to where we are based and were able to identify the ones where ShelterBox aid could be of the most use. Some of these camps are small, containing about 50 families, others contain many thousands, all of whom have fled the fighting with little more than the clothes they are standing in. With the civil war grinding relentlessly on, the number of camps and their size are growing by the day.
‘We have seen many images taken from the camps, and it is clear that the majority of people in them do not have adequate shelter,’ says SRT member Anne Seuren. ‘People are making do with whatever structures that are available to them. Life is even returning to an old Roman settlement that was on the tourist map just a few years ago. If I hadn’t seen the images myself, I would never have believed that this former tourist destination is the only shelter these people can find against the elements.’
Robust distribution plans
We are also working closely with the individuals who are managing these camps and will be responsible for distributing the ShelterBox tents and blankets on our behalf. We are not just sending aid over the border in the hope it will get to those in need – we have put a robust plan in place to ensure that it does. Having already identified the camps in most need of shelter, we will be sent the name and size of the families who will be receiving our assistance. Videos and photographs will also be taken so we have a clear record of who received what, where they are, and when they received it. Where ShelterBox tents are grouped together in large numbers, we will even be able to use satellite imagery to check their location and ongoing use.
The Syrian crisis is complex and bloody with no end in sight. But ShelterBox is able to make a real difference on the ground. We have developed strong partnerships with those able to operate on our behalf in the country, and through careful distribution management and the increasing use of technology, we are able to effectively identify and reach the most desperate.
You can still help. Please donate today.
As international efforts to bring peace to Syria begin today at a conference in Switzerland with 40 foreign ministers, Response Team member Torstein Nielson speaks of Lebanon’s contrasts:
‘By understanding Lebanon you will understand much more of the Middle East’.
The above statement belongs to one of the most famous Norwegian television reporters with many years experience in the Middle East. Lebanon is in many ways representative of the region. Most of the Middle East is interrelated – and many of the threads are linked together in Lebanon. It is hardly possible to see the region’s conflicts and wars separately. Everything is connected to everything.
In the midst of an intense frenzy of big politics, religion and cultural history you can find everything you can imagine in Lebanon: Great scenery, rich history and culture, friendly people and fabulous food. Lebanon is characterised by contrasts. It is also a troubled part of the world. It is the Middle East’s most beautiful country but one small spark and Lebanon explodes. It has always been like that. No one visits Lebanon without being captivated.
After decades of civil war, most people in Lebanon thought that 2011 was going to be the best year in a long time. Years of economic growth and stability had created a hope for a new era. But then the conflict in Syria began. The first Syrian refugees arrived in April 2011. First a few, then more and more and more. In 2012 15,000 were registered. Now there are nearly 882,000. We should never forget that almost 500,000 Palestinian refugees also live in Lebanon. The humanitarian situation for Syrian refugees in other neighbouring countries is also precarious. According to the United Nations Refugee agency (UNHCR), there are currently 589,045 in Jordan, 577,349 in Turkey, 212,918 in Iraq and 132,598 in Egypt. An additional 6.5 million are displaced in Syria.
Number of refugees will rise further
It is said that there are many more than the number of registered refugees in Lebanon. The real number is probably closer to 1.2 million. UNHCR assume that the number of refugees will rise further. The situation has dramatic consequences for Lebanon’s economy. One expects an unemployment rate of about 20% in 2014 and Lebanon’s expenses as a result of the war in Syria is estimated to be US$7.5 billion. President Michael Sleiman warned earlier that Lebanon is now threatened by an existential crisis if the war in Syria is not ended.
The Syrian conflict has spread to Lebanon. The situation has escalated and many fear a flare of already existing political and religious conflicts. Violent incidents are now prominent in Tripoli, the northern Akkar province and in the Bekaa valley east of the country. Acts of violence have also occurred elsewhere in the country, including Beirut and Saida. The war in Syria has also kindled the existing conflicts in Lebanon, for example, in districts Bab Tabbaneh and Jabal Muhsen in Tripoli where there has continually been armed clashes between Sunnis and Alawites.
Burden for one nation
Lebanon and its citizens deserve much praise for keeping borders and homes open for civilians fleeing the war in the neighboring country. This small and beautiful country has taken a massive load, both economically and politically, by accepting nearly one million refugees at the end of last year. The burden is just too heavy to carry by one nation alone.
‘Who believes he understands Lebanon is not well briefed,’ is another statement worth remembering. The Middle East is a complex region. Everything is connected to everything.
ShelterBox has distributed aid to refugees from Syria in Lebanon since February 2013. Up to now ShelterBox has distributed enough aid to help nearly 1,500 families and more winterised aid is currently clearing through customs in Beirut to be distributed through ShelterBox’s trusted distribution network made up of local implementing partners.
ShelterBox aid is delivered to those most needed; often we find families in poorer areas, often remote and in the mountains. The refugees living here are amongst the most damaged people ShelterBox has met since our work started worldwide in 2001. The winter has set in there; frost and snow have arrived.
With your help we can make a difference. It’s vital to get more aid during this tough winter.
The core of ShelterBox’s work is to alleviate the suffering of displaced families by bringing them emergency shelter and other vital aid regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, religion or political affiliation. Please donate to our appeal here.