The devastating conflict in Syria is entering its ninth year. The country has been shattered, countless lives have been lost, and a decisive intervention by Russia has seen the regime of President Bashar al-Assad more firmly entrenched than ever. And still the conflict is not over: as the remnants of Islamic State are besieged in a tiny enclave in the north of the country, Syria's Kurds are squeezed between a hostile Turkey on one side and a resurgent Assad on the other. Whether they can trust their unpredictable American allies is open to question.
The humanitarian cost of this fruitless war is immense, with nearly 12 million Syrians either refugees in other countries or internally displaced in Syria itself. Five million of them are children.
A donor conference in Brussels – the third since the conflict began – is aiming to raise funds for long-term support. Among those attending is Christian charity World Vision, which works with refugees and IDPs and brings huge expertise to the table. World Vision stressed the problems caused by the destruction of infrastructure, the need to support those who chose to return to Syria, the need to educate children and provide psycho-social support for those who have been traumatised, and provide humanitarian access on the basis of need.
Christian Today spoke to Marc-Andre Hensel, director of World Vision's Syria response. 'We're looking at a [refugee] population of 12 million people, 6 million inside Syria and 6 million outside,' he says. 'A huge percentage of these are children.'
Around a third of them of school age were still unreached, he says. 'They go into street labour, they have no education, they make early marriages. Forty per cent of them are aged between 15 and 17. At this age young people need purpose and a future.'
For this, he says, they need formally recognised educational qualifications – 'something in their hands that they can use'. 'This generation will go back and rebuild Syria. This is about much more than providing them with food and water – it's about providing them with hope for the future.'
One of the main needs, he says, is to help host countries – Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey – because the structures to support such vast numbers of refugees are simply not there and local communities can become resentful. 'It's not just handing aid out, it's about the whole context a family lives in. It all needs to be taken care of, including the host communities. Then there is a much higher rate of acceptance.'
And it's important to realise that the picture is very complex, he says. 'The country is broken. Only a fraction of refugees say they would return now. Ninety per cent say they would go back "when the time is right", but the opportunities, the services – everything has to be in place.'
Long-term planning is crucial, and so is adequate funding. 'We need to understand that this is not about six or 12 months of programming,' Hensel says. 'We need to be a lot more innovative and allow for new approaches.' And in Jordan, funding levels are falling and civil society organisations are not getting the money they need to carry out their work.
After the two previous funding conferences, pledges were made to provide millions of dollars to support Syrian refugees. However, there is a huge gulf between those pledges and what the UN estimates it will actually cost to meet the humanitarian needs. In 2018 the UN requested $3.4bn for work inside Syria, of which 65 per cent was funded. The $5.6bn requested for refugees in the surrounding countries was only 62 per cent funded, so 2019 began with a shortfall.
The pledges made at this week's conference already total hundreds of millions of dollars. The US has pledged another $397 million. Kuwait has pledged $300 million. In total, estimates are that as much as $7 billion might have been raised. UN emergency relief chief Mark Lowcock said today: 'That is a very significant result and if that is where we end up at the end of the day we will be pleased.'
Yet even this is less than the 8.8 billion the UN has estimated it needs: $3.3 billion to help those displaced inside Syria and $5.5 billion for refugees and host communities in neighbouring countries. And if fighting continues or worsens, for instance in Idlib province where airstrikes have targeted armed opposition groups, the situation will deteriorate even further.
Many parts of Syria are calmer than they were. But the conflict has left the country shattered, and reconstruction will take decades. During that time, those at the sharp end will be the charities and humanitarian workers who will work to mend what's broken and who desperately need the tools to do their job.