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Syria faces humanitarian catastrophe

The people of Syria are facing a humanitarian catastrophe as the fighting against the Assad regime continues to take a savage toll. there appears to be no end in sight to the killing of innocent men, women and children; even the elderly are not spared.

Around four million people, or 20 per cent of the population, have lost their homes and taken refuge in make-shift camps in neighbouring countries; almost three million are displaced within Syria itself. President Bashar Al-Assad is in no hurry to hand over the reins of power or introduce the political and economic reforms he promised two years ago as the Arab Spring swept the region.

As the Syrian winter sets in, conditions for the people are desperate. Many live in tents and are without adequate clothing to protect them against the winter cold. The UN has reported a rising demand for its dwindling resources.

John Ging is the director of operations at the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: "The humanitarian community in Syria is struggling," he said.  "People are losing hope because they just see more violence on the horizon, they just see deterioration." The UN, Ging pointed out, is finding it more and more difficult just to do the very basic things to help people to survive.

Media reports note that "support systems are breaking down and refuge is increasingly hard to find for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the violence." The crisis has affected Syria's health-care system, which used to be one of the most effective in the region. According to the World Health Organisation, the fighting has partly or completely destroyed half of the country's 88 public hospitals and 186 of its 1,919 local health care centres. Particularly devastating has been the attack on Syria's pharmaceutical industry, which previously met 90 per cent of the country's need for medicines. The industry is now struggling to import raw materials due to sanctions imposed on Syria by Western countries.

Looting of medicines has become a "way of life", claims the UK's Guardian newspaper: "Spoils have now become the main drive for many [rebel] units as battalion commanders seek to increase their power." The report quoted a pharmacist who explained why he was running out of penicillin. The rebels had seized a pharmaceutical company's warehouse in Aleppo and then re-sold its contents, shipping all of the drugs out of the city. "I went to the warehouse to tell them that they had no right to the medicine and that it should be given to the people and not re-sold," the pharmacist said. "They detained me and said they would break both my legs if I ever went back." Basic medicines have become unavailable, and the price for the drugs which are available has risen so much that they are out of the reach of most of the population. The result is that people are dying from chronic conditions that could otherwise be treated.

Elizabeth Hoff, the WHO's representative in Syria, reported that insulin is no longer available in many areas and that insulin pens once provided by public health centres to some 40,000 diabetic children have run out, forcing them to resort to more painful and difficult treatment. Meanwhile, as a result of the fighting, access to medical care has been sharply curtailed. "Many doctors have left the country," a recent WHO report stated. "In Damascus, Aleppo and Homs at least 70 per cent of the health providers live in rural areas and therefore frequently cannot get access to their work place due to irregular public transport, blocked and unsafe roads with an increasing number of military check-points, snipers and the unpredictable occurrence of street fights."

Although the UN announced recently a massive fund-raising drive for the humanitarian crisis in Syria, less than half of the ambitious target of $1.5 billion has been raised so far. With such an extreme resource shortage looming at this crucial juncture, the crisis is fast becoming a catastrophe.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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