Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and former U.N. humanitarian chief, says the world has failed to grasp the magnitude of the Syria crisis.
In an interview with Syria Deeply, Egeland also suggested there will be no resolution until six foreign powers – Russia, Iran and China on one side and the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the other – sort out their differences.
He also stresses the need to portray Syria, and Syria’s people, in a more positive light – to show that there is hope and a real opportunity to pull together at an international level to change Syria’s story.
Egeland has no doubt that this is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, with levels of destruction and suffering not seen since World War II.
“We have Srebrenica happening every few months in Syria in terms of civilians killed and maimed,” he told Syria Deeply.
And yet, there has been a complete collapse of international solidarity when it comes to Syria, he adds.
This failure to stand by Syrian civilians was described as a “stain on the conscience of the international community,” in a recent report by a group of NGOs including OXFAM and the NRC.
In reality, in the past year, the humanitarian situation has actually worsened and the conflict has escalated, the “Failing Syria” report found.
U.N. resolutions for cross-border aid to help the 12 million Syrians now in desperate need have largely been ignored, held hostage to a deadlock reinforced by U.N. country members who have competing interests inside Syria.
But as the number of refugees continues to rise – increasing from 2.4 million to 3.8 million since 2013 – it puts an incredible amount of pressure on the infrastructure and resources of neighboring countries. This comes at a time when financial support to aid organizations is drying up. (Syria crisis appeals were only 57 percent funded in 2014, compared with 71 percent in 2013.)
The situation is so bad in Lebanon and Jordan – countries that have collectively taken in more refugees than the rest of Europe put together – that some Syrians are actually considering going back home, to a war zone, simply because there is not enough aid to provide housing for them, Egeland tells us.
And yet, the voices of the Syrians themselves – the ones enduring the suffering, but who still retain their compassion for others and cry for peace, the unsung heroes, the children who simply want a future and an education – are often unheard.
It is our obligation, as journalists, humanitarians and global citizens, to put their voices and stories at the center of the crisis, to reinforce their positive messages as a counter-narrative, Egeland concludes.
He spoke to Syria Deeply about the refugee crisis and the need for international action.
Syria Deeply: The refugee problem is now worse than at any time since World War II, yet it seems like we are witnessing a collapse of international solidarity when it comes to Syria. You’ve said that the response of the world community is no longer one of compassion or even outrage. Why is that?
Egeland: We’ve failed to grasp the magnitude of the crisis. The last time this number of people were forced to flee was during the breakup of India, when 14 million people fled from Muslim or Hindu areas to other parts of the subcontinent. Now, with 12 million people displaced inside Syria and another four million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, it is indeed a crisis unparalleled since the 1940s. No sitting politician has had anything bigger happen on his or her watch. They’ve failed to understand that a crisis will not get larger than this in their time as decision makers.
The Syria crisis has grown gradually and relentlessly for over four years now. As a result, too many people regard Syria as a hopeless case. They’ve also concluded that the conflict is two-dimensional – bad guys vs. bad guy (Assad vs. ISIS). They fail to understand that the conflict is massive, it’s happening now and it’s getting worse, and that it’s bad guys vs. civilians. It’s in conformity with our ideals to do much more, to help the good people who are being targeted by the bad guys.
Syria Deeply: It’s clear that the international community has not been able or in some cases has refused to step up to the challenge. The NRC and several other NGOS have criticized the U.N. Security Council for “failing Syria” by not implementing its own resolutions for cross-border aid. You even called the UNSC “defunct.” How has the U.N. failed to address the humanitarian catastrophe inside Syria today?
Egeland: The U.N. is an intergovernmental organization – it’s owned and run by governments, and these governments have failed both inside the U.N. and outside of the U.N. when it comes to Syria. It could well be that the U.N. staff could’ve been more proactive, innovative and aggressive to push the cause of the Syrians, but ultimately it’s as simple as this: On the one hand, Russia and Iran backed by China, and on the other hand, the U.S. Saudis and Turkey, have failed to pull this crisis in the right direction. They were betting on opposing forces and the civilians ended up in the crossfire. There is no other solution other than that these six countries sit down and decide to pull this crisis in the right direction. If not, it will fall into the abyss.
Syria Deeply: What is the scope of the aid needed to tackle the challenges posed by the fallout of the humanitarian situation inside Syria?
Egeland: The NRC is a big humanitarian actor, with 1,500 full-time staff and many more volunteer and part-time staff in Syria as well as in neighboring countries affected by the crisis.
We are producing a report that basically says the housing situation for Syrian refugees in the neighboring countries, in particular Lebanon and Jordan, which have an overwhelming number of Syrians, is so bad that Syrians are forced to return home to rubble and crossfire in Syria because there is no housing at all for many of them. Aid organizations are forced to cut support to refugees because we have less and less money per refugee as time goes by, yet the number of refugees in neighboring countries is increasing and the funding hasn’t changed.
Syria Deeply: The past few months have been a particularly grim period for refugees, including Syrians, trying to cross the Mediterranean. Upward of 1,800 people have died this year already. What does this say about the level of desperation facing Syrians today?
Egeland: This kind of desperate exodus has since biblical times been a sign of utter desperation. When Syrians or Palestinians from Syria take their small children on board barges trying to reach the Mediterranean, it’s not because they don’t love their children, it’s because they are so desperate to find hope for their children that they are willing to throw themselves into the sea, so to speak. They have no hope or option inside Syria.
The deaths at sea should be a wake-up call for everyone. The NRC is calling for a quadrupling of support for the region. Aid organizations have requested in excess of 8 billion dollars for Syria, which is very little in comparison to what the military campaigns cost in Afghanistan or Iraq or the price of bailing out a few banks when they had problems.
We are also asking for increased quotas of refugees to peaceful countries elsewhere, European countries among them. These quotas should be dedicated to particularly vulnerable groups that we can’t help in neighboring countries or in Syria – for instance, stateless people such as the Palestinians and Syrian widows with children.
We need to stop adding fuel to the fire as an international community. We all need to sit down and give support to a U.N.-led mediation effort to resolve the crisis in Syria.
Syria Deeply: With no prospects for an end to the conflict in sight or a political process to end the violence, what are the best options to alleviate the suffering of Syrians?
Egeland: As bad as it is in the neighboring countries, it’s even worse in many of the war-torn parts of Syria. Aleppo is the Srebrenica of our time. The armed men who attack civilians need to be pulled back. There are multiple ways to have positive and negative sanctions against armed actors that violate human rights. We can also dramatically step up the aid effort to meet the needs of the people inside Syria. There has to be much more facilitation of humanitarian work from all governments in the region, including the Syrian government. The neighboring countries could do more to facilitate cross-border relief. We could have reached many more people with better assistance up to this point, even though there are several besieged areas in the country, where armed men now starve out civilians as if we were still living in the medieval era.
Syria Deeply: You’ve called for a new approach to address the humanitarian situation inside Syria. What did you mean by that?
Egeland: It’s a classic case where the longer the conflict lasts, the more difficult it is to stop the violence because there is less unity of command, there are more armed actors, and there is more chaos and revenge.
However, there is a danger in projecting this as a hopeless case. As humanitarian workers and journalists, there is a possibility that we’ve had a collective negative effect on the way the conflict is perceived. We search for words to describe how bad the situation is, and that leads to both public and political opinion being numb toward the crisis, and a general feeling that the situation is hopeless and people don’t want to hear about it.
What we have to say, what we need to say, is: We can change the narrative, we can create hope, we can help, and we need funding. Syrian children inside the country as well as outside the country can get an education. We can give them vocational training, we can give them work and education, even as we are waiting for local, regional and international political agreements and ceasefires. I met a 10-year-old in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon last year who had fled three times with her family inside Syria before she came to the Bekaa, where she was living in very basic conditions, getting some relief from the NRC and other NGOs.
The most important thing in her life was to get an education. When I asked her what she wanted to become when she grew up, she said that she wanted to be a doctor so that she could return to Syria to heal the wounded. We have to tell her story – not the stories of the people who are saying they are going to go home to seek revenge, join the extremists, burn the house down of the person who burnt their house down.
If we portray it in a more positive manner, we may also get more funding, including private funding. Amazingly, there isn’t enough interest in Syria today: Where are the collection tins for Syria on the streets? Where are the torch-lit campaigns for Syria on the streets?
As an example of a glimmer of hope, we were able to turn decision making in the right direction in Norway. We more than doubled humanitarian assistance from last year to this year, from less than $100 million to $200 million from the official government of Norway. This is over $30 per capita – 10 times more per capita than the average OECD country is providing. We were also able to get our parliament to agree to double the official U.N. Syrian refugee quota, from 1,500 per year to 3,000 each year – at a time when most countries have not agreed to a refugee quota at all. I hope that the same takes place in other countries.
Jan Egeland is secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which was founded in 1946 to help European refugees following World War II. Today is it Norway’s largest humanitarian NGO, with more than 5,000 employees and projects taking place in around 25 countries.
As U.N. under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and as emergency relief coordinator from 2003 to 2006, Egeland helped reform the global humanitarian response system and organized the international response to the Asian tsunami, and to crises from Darfur to the Democratic Republic of Congo to Lebanon. In 2006, Time magazine named him one of the 100 “people who shape our world.” From 1999 to 2002, he was the U.N. secretary-general’s special adviser on Colombia, and from 1990 to 1997 he was state secretary in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs