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Syrian refugee conference

Bettina Marx / gswOctober 28, 2014

Representatives from 40 nations are meeting in Berlin to discuss the refugee crisis in the Middle East. The humanitarian response to the wars in Iraq and Syria remains woefully under financed, according to aid groups.

Syrian refugees pictured in Turkey. (Photo: REUTERS/ Murad Sezer)
Image: Reuters/Murad Sezer

In the Middle East's largest crisis region, millions of people have fled from home. The UN's refugee agency UNHCR estimates that more than three million Syrians have made their way into neighboring countries since the outbreak of their country's civil war. An additional 6.5 million are believed to have been forced to move within the country's borders. The affected individuals include more than six million children.

"We're dealing with the catastrophe of a century here," said Germany's Development Minister Gerd Müller, who adds that the catastrophe is continuing under acts of terror committed by the "Islamic State" (IS).

In Iraq, which was taking in Syrian refugees until recently, the residents of entire communities have now also fled their homes.

Winter on the way

Müller of Merkel's Christian Democrats has said the international community must do more to help those who have left home - particularly in light of the approach of winter and the inadequate preparation for the season's hardships in many refugee camps. The German minister notes that a temperature drop will follow the rains that have already begun and that it could lead to many deaths.

In northern Iraq and in Turkey, many refugees in parks and in the streets have no roofs over their heads. Many would have little more than a canvas cover to protect them from the cold.

Gerd Müller and Maria Calivis, pictured at a press conference. (Photo: Rainer Jensen /dpa)
UNICEF's Maria Calivis pictured with German Development Minister Gerd MüllerImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Rainer Jensen

"No child and no affected person in the camps can be allowed to freeze or starve to death or die of thirst," Müller insisted, adding that Germany would pledge an additional 100 million euros (127 million dollars) to refugee aid. That would be in addition to the 632 million euros the country has already given for aid to Syria. The UNHCR has calculated that a total of 3.75 billion dollars are needed to address the refugee situation, and Müller would like to see Europe put together one billion euros in aid to assist the refugees in surviving the winter.

"If European countries don't increase their involvement, then the refugee crisis will arrive in Europe to a much greater extent," he also warned.

International refugee conference in Berlin

On Tuesday, representatives from more than 40 countries and international organizations will meet in Berlin for a conference on Syrian refugees at the invitation of Gerd Müller, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres.

Maria Calivis, Middle East director of the UN's children's organization UNICEF, expressed gratitude to the German government for the conference as a way to shed light on a part of the world in desperate need of help. She stresses that the refugees themselves aren't the only ones affected by poverty and a lack of opportunities: the neighboring countries to Syria that are taking them in are also suffering.

Calivis says that many of the communities that have taken in refugees have since been pushed to the limit. She offers examples of Lebanon's Beqaa Valley, where severe water shortages occurred this summer and of families who have exhausted their savings caring for families they have taken in. The situation, she adds, is especially dramatic for children, who have lost their homes, security and hopes for the future.

To prevent them from turning into a lost generation, UNICEF's Calivis says sending refugee children to school must be made a priority. Three million Syrian children currently lack access to education in school, says Calivis, although her organization has distributed 70,000 backpacks with school supplies in Lebanon and helped put 120,000 Syrian children in school in Jordan.

Syrian refugee children in Turkey. (Photo: DW/J. Hahn)
These refugee children reside in a camp in the Turkish city of SurucImage: DW/J. Hahn

Expecting a political signal

Ahead of Tuesday's conference, development aid organizations highlighted refugees' plights in the affected countries. Mathias Mogge, head of the VENRO umbrella organization for German development NGOs, said the entire humanitarian system is underfinanced. He claims that financial support from states often comes at such short notice that it's not possible to establish multi-year projects that support communities in taking in refugees.

Ton van Zutphen, regional director of World Hunger Aid, adds that people also have to note that the situation is unlikely to improve decisively in the next five to 10 years. He says long-term plans are needed, although the most pressing question involves planning for the coming winter by providing shelter and sufficiently warm supplies to the refugees.

Abeer Ziadeh of the Jordanian chapter of Save the Children says her country has generously taken in around a third of all Syrian refugees, but Jordan's own economic problems prevent it from fulfilling all of the needs of its new residents. The country is also in need of external aid.

Tammam Salam and Angela Merkel. (Photo: REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke)
Lebanon's Prime Minister Salam met with Merkel on MondayImage: Reuters/H. Hanschke

Representatives from the organizations tending to the region's refugees say they hope that a clear political signal comes out of the conference in Berlin. New initiatives for achieving peace in the region are also imperative, says VENRO chair Mogge.

Merkel pledges support

The conference in Berlin is not to be understood as a mere meeting of donors but a show of political support, said Chancellor Angela Merkel, who met Monday evening in Berlin with Lebanon's prime minister, Tammam Salam.

Merkel promised German aid to Salam's country, saying, "Germany wants to show solidarity in light of the problems Lebanon is facing." In a country with four million residents, an additional one million refugees have officially been registered. "In Germany," she added, "We can barely even imagine what sort of challenges that presents - particularly since the situation in Lebanon was difficult even before the Syria crisis due to decades of Palestinian refugees."

In turn, Salam thanked Merkel for Germany's interest in the difficult complex of problems as well as for hosting the conference.