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The horror of Syria - the curse on our houses

Aid workers speak out against the suffering of Syria, the failures of politicians and the cynicism of political campaigns to discredit foreign aid.

lead From 'The Long Season', a documentary from the 'single shot cinema' school of multi-award-winning director Leonard Retel Helmrich given its UK premiere this month at the Human Rights Watch film festival, BFI. Helmrich spent a year and half in the refugee camp, Majdal Anjar, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. All rights reserved.

We are both aid workers – from Athens, Greece and from Edinburgh, Scotland, the Athens of the North. We come from the opposite ends of Europe, but we are connected by the fact that we are closely linked to work with Syrian refugees.

It is unusual, and normally wrong, for aid workers to speak out about aid work and politics, but an endgame of sorts is approaching in Syria and it is clear that the road both to that point and beyond it will bring further intolerable suffering. In fact neither of us can stand witnessing the disgrace and depravity of what is happening in Syria for one moment longer.

In fact neither of us can stand witnessing the disgrace and depravity of what is happening in Syria for one moment longer. It is on a scale beyond Greek tragedy – Sophocles describes the pain of Creon as “keitai de nekros peri nekro" “there they lie, the dead upon the dead” – but in Syria it is mass murder upon mass murder, atrocity upon atrocity – and now we have the obscenity of East Ghoutta.

It seems strange to have to use words like this in 2018, but they are the only words available to use. The international community has played Tantalus, offering up over half a million people for sacrifice, and 11 million to be driven out of their homes. Now, like the house of Atreus, it is trapped and paralysed by a curse it has brought upon itself and upon the Syrian people.

Political negligence and failure

It did not have to be like this. Too many international actors sought to exploit the Syrian “Arab Spring” of 2011 to their own advantage, and this included the west. Too little was done to stop the rot when and where it began. Pre-emptive diplomacy would have been possible involving Russia, Iran and Turkey.

But the west was too busy trying to sideline Russia in a new lukewarm war. Russia then embarked on a tragicomic show of power – from antics in cyberspace to Crimea and Ukraine, and most tragic of all in Syria. Only the UK, and to some extent the Obama administration, had a constructive attitude towards engaging with Iran. Turkey was made to feel an outsider by most of Europe, and after the Gulenist attempted coup, began to persecute those capable of making peace in the region, including innocent civil society activists like Osman Kavala, who now languishes in prison in Istanbul. As one young refugee put it, “It is like twenty football teams playing against one another on a single pitch.”

This collective irresponsibility created not one, but a whole series of wars and proxy wars, involving the Syrian government, the Syrian people, a divided opposition, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the Kurds, Saudi Arabia, Israel, IS, Hezbollah and Salafist jihadist groups such as Al Nusra and its successors, not to speak of the rights and legitimate interests of minorities like Syrian Turkmen, Circassians, Ismailis, Druze, Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, Yazidis, Christians and Jews. As one young refugee put it, “It is like twenty football teams playing against one another on a single pitch.”

The west’s principal proactive focus in Syria has been on “degrading” ISIL. This has been largely to satisfy western domestic agendas, some of them rational and some irrational, including a pandemic of Islamophobia in the media. It has had little to do with saving Syrian people from intolerable serial atrocity. Along the way the west has offered support to Syrian opposition forces, in particular the SMC (Supreme Military Council) although action never matched the rhetoric, and significant training, equipping and support for the YPG (Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units).

But there is a dark irony at the heart of all of this, largely unreported in the western media. The vast majority of people in the Middle East firmly believe that ISIL was created by the west. They accuse the west of negligence when they drove elite Iraqi officers into the hands of radicals, and of giving the green light to non-government funders in Saudi Arabia and other states to support ISIL, presumably in the hope that this would create opportunity in chaos. But there is a dark irony at the heart of all of this, largely unreported in the western media. The vast majority of people in the Middle East firmly believe that ISIL was created by the west.

Now the west appears to be embarking upon another cycle of folly and human sacrifice. If reports reaching aid workers are correct, then there are plans for corridors, hard borders, entities and enclaves which may satisfy the agendas of some of the powers meddling in Syria, but will bring nothing but more pain to the Syrian people. -

If Tantalus is prepared to reach upwards and outwards, there are things, even amid this cynicism and failure, that can be done. There are still options for diplomacy. All of the principal actors on the ground – Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel – are there because there are things they want. Even some of the more radical paramilitary groups would come to the table in return for political recognition.

The west is in a position to respond to some of these ambitions, with minimal damage to itself, to barter for at least incremental improvements for the Syrian people, and to move gradually towards the regional settlements that have to come.

This action may range from relaxation of sanctions on Iran, through progress in bringing justice to the people of Israel and Palestine, to a proper security deal with Russia in Europe.

All of these strategies are completely realistic; comparable things have happened before – in the INF and START 1 treaties of the 1980s, the Oslo Accords of 1993-95 and the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) of 2015, and must happen again at some point soon. Perhaps the most powerful bargaining chip of all is money. Russia simply cannot afford to reconstruct its Syrian entity in the way it would wish.

Political negligence and humanitarian failure

The humanitarian action for Syrian refugees has been a mixture of success and failure, but mostly failure. Governmental donations to UNHCR have fallen far short of promises and real needs. An update on funding for Syria in October 2017 showed that UNHCR received only 43% of requirements; responses to earlier appeals have been as low as 20%.

As a result, the situation in Lebanon is dire. There are now roughly 2 million refugees – not far from a third of the population. Only half are registered with UNHCR, which closed its books in May of 2015 – partly through international political failure, partly through running out of money.

This means a million refugees receive no support. Those who are registered may expect food security of $13.5 a month. In Lebanon the recommended monthly expenditure on food is $161.76 for an Asian diet and $214.42 for a western diet. Many Syrians combine both when they can, so the international community provides between 6% and 8% of the food they need to survive – but of course, only for the 50% of refugees registered, with a significant reduction in numbers by the week.

UNHCR offers limited medical support to registered refugees. 75.8% of refugees are regularly unable to afford medical care. 39% of the population have no regular water supply, 29% have no access to proper sanitation. There are some positive achievements. Oxfam, for example, has done outstanding work with water supply in the Bekaa Valley camps through its WaSH programme.

There are some positive achievements. Oxfam, for example, has done outstanding work with water supply in the Bekaa Valley camps through its WaSH programme. Local NGOs have made a magnificent effort to establish informal schools, about half in permanent buildings and half in tents. Around 65% of refugee children are now in some form of education, but most schools are left without any form of accreditation – in spite of sustained efforts to appeal to international governments and education authorities for support.

There are roughly half a million refugees in the camps in the Bekaa Valley. In Jordan the camps are run by UNHCR, under agreements made with the Jordanian Government. But in Lebanon they are predominantly unstructured and dependant upon local NGOs. After nearly seven years, people are still living in abject poverty in tents made of tarpaulin, plastic bags, cardboard and matchwood. Local NGOs do their best to insulate tents and raise floors to prevent flooding, but the situation remains shockingly bad – an utter disgrace for the international community, indeed, as Sophocles would have described it, shame upon shame.

Lebanese people have dealt with all of this with a mixture of extraordinary, admirable generosity and total denial. Now the denial part of the equation has turned to frustration. It is difficult not to sympathise with the feelings of the Lebanese. But the Army has begun to bulldoze down some of these pathetic, sticky-tape-and-plaster communities, on a variety of legal pretexts, leading to dispossession after dispossession, homelessness upon homelessness, pain upon pain.

It does not help that international policy seems to be predicated upon the delusion of a swift “return” of refugees. Refugees cannot and should not return home until their lives and livelihoods are secured. And home should mean home. In the meantime, people have to be looked after with far more care and dignity, wherever they happen to be.

It is possible to improve this situation, even with the resources currently available. The big funders, like ECHO (EU) or DfID (UK) are constituted to fund large partner organisations. The large organisations they fund are best equipped to deal with top-down interventions, like in the camps in Jordan.

The situation in Lebanon requires a bottom-up approach. There is no way a large international NGO can accumulate detailed intelligence and create micro- structures on the ground to be effective throughout such varied geographies. A simple solution would be for DfID, for example, to agree to partner consortia of local NGOs, taking a holistic approach to the needs of given areas.

There are other improvements that could bring immediate benefit to the Syrian people. There has been political negligence over the question of international transfer of funds for humanitarian work. Lack of care and wisdom in the handling of sanctions legislation means that there is no platform for transferring funds to Syria. The only way the west will ever be able to play the money card in Syria (we hope to the benefit of the Syrian people) is to wake up from its torpor, and as a matter of urgency organise workable financial platforms.

There are still banks in Syria that are not sanctioned, and there is every opportunity to set up end-to-end accounting between designated partners. The only way the west will ever be able to play the money card in Syria (we hope to the benefit of the Syrian people) is to wake up from its torpor, and as a matter of urgency organise workable financial platforms.

The authors represent between them a number of NGOs, including SAWA for Development and Aid, the first NGO to support Syrian refugees as they arrived in Bekaa, and an organisation with a high reputation and excellent accounting – the founder, Dr Rouba Mhaissen is FCO Woman of the Year.

But SAWA is not allowed to open a bank account in the UK. It cannot transfer funds it has raised in the UK, urgently needed for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. This immoral state of affairs is the result of chronic political failure, negligence among government regulators and a culture of fear among compliance departments of banks.

A new Sanctions Bill is passing through Westminster. The aid work community can only hope that the urgent funding transfer issue will be addressed, and that there will not be yet another abject political failure, yet another betrayal of the Syrian people, yet another murder in the House of Atreus.

A perspective from Greece

Since 2013, when the crisis began, Greece has received the second largest number of refugees in the EU, but support from the international community is still far from adequate. More than 51,000 people are stranded in different parts of Greece according to official sources, 13,000 of them in the islands where they were first received. The majority have applied for asylum while others wait for relocation or family reunification applications to be adjudicated so that they can move on to other member states. More than 51,000 people are stranded in different parts of Greece according to official sources, 13,000 of them in the islands where they were first received.

However, as the situation stands, it is safe to say that all five islands concerned (Lesvos, Chios, Samos, Leros, Kos) are overpopulated. Lesvos is a good example. While the official refugee camp’s capacity is 3,000 people, the island currently accommodates 7,000. During February 2018, only 3 people were sent back to Turkey (under the EU-Turkey agreement) and 33 were sent to the Greek mainland.

In spite of ongoing efforts of the Greek army, living conditions are poor and inappropriate. Overcrowding, poor sanitation and security lapses are putting refugees and migrants at the reception and processing centres of Vathy on Samos and Moria on Lesvos at risk. On Monday March 5, 2018, following a visit to these two eastern Aegean islands, Amnesty International stated that:

“Overcrowding in the hotspots has a compounding effect on the standard of basic services, the frustration and mental, physical and psychosocial health. Very few people are leaving the islands and moved to the mainland.”

Lack of funding and international support means there is insufficient capacity to meet the needs of people with specific vulnerabilities, such as unaccompanied minors, the elderly and others who are unable to care for themselves.

And there are other, less self-evident vulnerabilities. Assessments are not always undertaken in a thorough manner; often only the most obvious and visible challenges are identified. There is a general lack or limitation of access to primary health care, mental health care, legal abortion, clinical management of rape and treatment of chronic diseases; there is also a lack of interest (or burn out!) among some doctors, lack of engagement from local associations and lack of cultural mediators and interpreters at the hospitals.

There are women with high risk pregnancies with limited access to proper follow-up, and a high number of unwanted pregnancies, including an increased prevalence of pregnancies relating to SGBV (Sexual and Gender Based Violence), There are reports of SGBV cases that have not received post-exposure prophylaxis within the appropriate time (72 hours). There is limited access to formula milk for newborn babies

Refugees are most often left to navigate the complicated asylum system on their own, with insufficient information and language support, at the same time as they face a multitude of adversities, trying to rebuild their lives in their new surroundings and pursue their rights to seek security, health care, education and employment.

In the evolving and constantly changing asylum procedures in Greece, legal assistance is essential, not only for processing asylum claims but also for ensuring that rights to basic needs are respected. Although there is a state-run legal aid scheme, it falls far short of current needs. Only 23 lawyers have been recruited by the Asylum Service to provide legal services for the 17,633 asylum seekers who have challenged initial decisions since 2016. Only 23 lawyers have been recruited by the Asylum Service to provide legal services for the 17,633 asylum seekers who have challenged initial decisions since 2016.

Access to health, social security and welfare allowances has been problematic. According to Greek law, asylum seekers and refugees are entitled to free health care. But the law is poorly codified and based mainly on a variety of Government circulars which do not offer clarity on relevant procedures.

All agencies working with refugees in Greece express grave concern about the lack of clarity on what happens at the end of 2018, when the majority of funding is expected to be withdrawn. These agencies express considerable anxiety about to whom, how, when or what responsibilities will be transitioned. It was noted as of considerable concern that the recent transitioning of a number of services on the islands has not so far been successful, in particular the transition from INGO-supported medical services to state medical services. Groups identified a need for extensive capacity-building and institutional strengthening.

Greece seems to be too immersed in its own problems, including its internal political and financial crises, its relations with Turkey and the refugee crisis itself to be able to care about the horrific events taking place in Syria at the moment.

Other than the voices of individuals and some NGOs, there is little political movement. The people of the Greek islands were nominated for the Nobel Prize for their admirable efforts – it was an achievement to be very proud of in very many ways; but there are, as yet, no prizes for the international politicians.

A perspective from the UK

The British are by nature a welcoming people in their quiet, undemonstrative way. It is sad that political pressures in recent years have encouraged a culture of chauvinism and xenophobia.

It was fear of this political movement that prevented David Cameron’s Government from pulling its weight in the Syrian migration crisis of 2013 to 16, lagging shamefully behind Greece and most of western Europe. A compromise was finally made, and the UK promised to take in 20,000 refugees by the end of the current parliamentary term (2020).

A saving grace for British self-respect, among its multiple failures to assist the Syrian people, has been its aid budget, which is 0.71% of national income, making the UK the fifth best donor in the world. But on the morning of February 8, 2018, Jacob Rees Mogg arrived in Downing St with an ice-cream vendor’s box containing a petition organised by the Daily Express demanding the axeing of the entire UK aid budget.

At more or less the same moment, The Times, a paper Rees Mogg’s father once edited, announced on Twitter its headline for February 9 – which was the story of Oxfam employees accused of using prostitutes in Haiti. This was the signal for an apparently coordinated campaign of accusations and innuendo in the press – including a profoundly misleading article in the Daily Mail about aid workers in Bosnia, relating to events that the authors witnessed at close hand – all intended to discredit the aid work community, and therefore the aid budget. It looks, to all intents and purposes, like yet another immolation and yet another total disgrace.

And from the Athens of the South and North

From the Athens of the South and the North, we make a number of urgent appeals:

– for less defeatism, cynicism and immorality, and more wisdom and creativity in seeking an end to the suffering of the Syrian people, including progress towards regional settlements, remembering that the common life (which is the Syrian tradition) is a safer and more prosperous way to live than in enclaves and ghettos;

– for international political action to ensure that financial targets for aid work are met, and not to assume that refugees can be bundled back to Syria on the basis of a cynical international carve-up of zones of influence, remembering always that home means home;

– to look at alternative, holistic, consortium-based models for bottom-up intervention;

– to make sure there are secure banking platforms for transfer of money to Syria and surrounding countries, for both large and small NGOs, to ensure that designated resources for aid and reconstruction reach their target, and that the west can use its financial influence in positive ways;

– to offer far more financial support for Greece, the second-largest refugee receiving country in Europe, and in particular to be clear about the plan, if there is one, for the end of 2018;

– and for the UK not to betray itself, and not to trash its most convincing reason for self-respect in the wider world.

About the authors

Christina Anagnostopoulou is a musicologist teaching topics related to music psychology and health at the University of Athens. Together with her students, she uses music to support people in psychiatric institutions, hospitals, drug rehabilitation centres, and collaborates with various NGOs related to ethnic minorities. She has been working with war refugees since they first appeared in Athens - on the street, in occupied buildings and in official camps. She advocates that Universities should be in the front line of offering help to people in need. 

Nigel Osborne is a composer who has pioneered methods of using music and creative arts to support children who are victims of conflict. He has a quarter of a century's experience in aid work, ranging from health care to education and emergency relief, in the Balkans, Caucasus, East Africa, South East Asia, the Indian subcontinent and currently in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. He is also a campaigner for human rights.

 


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