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Syrian Humanitarian Crisis As Bad As Rwanda?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, activists in Washington, D.C. are asking jury members to vote their conscience not the law. We'll ask why some people think jury nullification is the only way for minorities to get a fair day in court. That's in just a few minutes.

First, though, we head to Syria. The war there is of course still raging on, and the State Department says the situation there is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. While the U.S. government has backed off its threats of military intervention, the government is calling for humanitarian action. We're joined now by Anne Richard. She's the assistant secretary for population, refugees and migration at the State Department. Thank you so much for joining us.

ANNE RICHARD: Thanks for having me on today.

HEADLEE: Help me get my mind around the crisis - the humanitarian crisis in Syria. I mean, what kind of crisis are we talking about? Katrina-sized, Bosnia, Rwanda - how big is this problem?

RICHARD: It is hard to get your mind around...


RICHARD: ...The size of this crisis because I've never seen anything that has grown so big, so quickly, in such a short amount of time. Over the past year, we've gone from 230,000 refugees to 2.2 million refugees.

HEADLEE: Holy cow.

RICHARD: So that's 10 times as many. And that's a smaller number than the people who are displaced inside Syria and have fled for their lives and are seeking a safe place to live...

HEADLEE: Many of them children.

RICHARD: ...Inside their own country. Three quarters of the refugees are women and children, and that's not unusual for a refugee population. But it does mean that we have to tailor the aid that they get to the special needs.

HEADLEE: And we're now coming to learn of a polio outbreak in Syria, which complicates the problem even further, I have to assume.

RICHARD: Epidemiologists and other health experts have known for some time that disease can spread quickly through populations on the move like this. And so one of the first things they are concerned about is always measles and about the health of people who don't have good clean water and sanitation. But the resurgence of polio is particularly tragic because polio had been sort of defeated all over the world and was only found in three places. And now we see it coming back, both in the Horn of Africa and here, and this is very, very sad.

HEADLEE: And I assume concerning because that could spread even further as these refugees go into surrounding countries.

RICHARD: It would be of concern anywhere because it could spread. But in the middle of a war zone, it means it's very hard to treat it...


RICHARD: ...And get children vaccinated. And this is the problem of what happens during war. You have the breakdown of society, and things like normal vaccinations, kids going to school, people going to work, that all goes out the window.

HEADLEE: Now the State Department is calling on the Assad regime to give access to humanitarian workers. What is happening when humanitarian workers try to get in to treat people and to deliver goods?

RICHARD: It's more than the State Department calling on them. There was a presidential statement coming out of the UN Security Council right after the UN Security Council passed a resolution on chemical weapons. And the statement on humanitarian assistance called on the Assad regime - called on all parties to the conflict to let the convoys get in, stop targeting medical facilities and doctors and stop targeting innocent civilians. And so, unfortunately...

HEADLEE: We haven't...

RICHARD: ...We haven't seen that happen. We've seen, instead, that the Assad regime is pursuing something that's been called a starvation into submission campaign, which means to cut off aid to cities so that people inside become malnourished and can no longer fight back.

HEADLEE: So you had talked earlier about tailoring the aid to - specifically to help women and children in particular who make up the vast majority of these refugees, especially. What does that mean? What kind of aid do women and children in particular need?

RICHARD: Well, all people of course need the basics...

HEADLEE: Food, water, shelter.

RICHARD: ...That everyone would think of. Exactly, food, water and shelter. But little children need more nutrition for starting out in life or else they'll have stunted growth. Women and girls can be preyed upon and exploited in a situation of upheaval. So we have programs...

HEADLEE: Sexually.

RICHARD: Exactly, sexual and gender-based violence. So we have programs to do more to prevent that right at the outset of the emergency. Secretary of State Kerry announced a program to particularly target the early stages of a crisis at the UN General Assembly this year. So we know what needs to be done. The bigger problem for us is trying to get the aid workers to the people who need the aid. Humanitarian access, as we call it, the ability to reach people in need is a major problem right now inside Syria.

HEADLEE: What about outside? What about those who have successfully made it to a refugee camp, say, in Turkey? What are the conditions like in those refugee camps?

RICHARD: The countries that border Syria are all hosting refugees, and we're very grateful to those countries that they are. Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon have...


RICHARD: ...All taken refugees in. Turkey is the most economically able to host them. It doesn't mean it's not challenging to take in over half a million refugees, but they've set up a series of over 20 camps that are really very well established and run in comparison to refugee camps elsewhere in the world. Jordan and Lebanon are taking in what for them is really a third wave of refugees because Palestinian refugees have lived in their countries for decades.

Iraqis fled to these same countries, and some Iraqis are fleeing now for a second time from Syria. And then this third wave of refugees are the Syrians themselves, who formerly had hosted refugees and are now on the run. So in Jordan, they built one very large camp. In Lebanon, they have no camps. But in all of these countries, most of the refugees don't live in camps. They live in the villages. They live in the cities, and they're trying to make it wherever they are. And we find that not only do the refugees need help, but countries like Jordan and Lebanon that are not wealthy need help to help their communities host all these refugees.

HEADLEE: So what exactly can other nations do? I mean, I have to assume that when there's an outbreak of war, it's relatively normal that aid workers have a hard time getting safely into a war-torn country. So what exactly can - what steps can we take to help the people of Syria?

RICHARD: I think what's different about Syria is that the battle lines are not drawn in a neat division across the country. It's more like a checkerboard, and the battle lines are in flux. So there are opposition-held areas. There's a fractured opposition. There are areas that are being fought over.

HEADLEE: Or passed back and forth.

RICHARD: Exactly, and then there's regime-controlled areas. So what we've found is it is harder in Syria because, for example, a three-hour drive from Damascus to Aleppo for an aid convoy now takes three days and passing through 54 checkpoints run by different people.

HEADLEE: Holy cow.

RICHARD: And so that's not an efficient way to get aid to people in need. What the world is doing is that we're seeing that the countries that provide aid year in and year out are doing it. In fact, the U.S. is the number one donor to this crisis. We've provided $1.3 billion in humanitarian assistance since the start of the conflict a couple years ago. And we're seeing Western Europe, Canada, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand also providing aid - the Europeans.

But what we want to see is more countries come to the table. Because of the scale and the scope of this crisis, we'd like to see more countries come and provide aid. One good news story is that Kuwait has done so. It has stepped forward and held a pledging conference last January. It committed $300 million. It followed through on its pledge. And it provided the funding through these multilateral organizations, UN agencies like the UN Refugee Agency, UNICEF, the World Food Program, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, among others. And there are some other states in the region - wealthy states in the region that have done some things. Like the United Arab Emirates has set up a camp inside Jordan. But we'd like to see more of that, more giving from the Gulf, more giving from Russia, from China, other members of the P5, as it's called...


RICHARD: ...The five countries that make up the core of the UN Security Council.

HEADLEE: That's Anne Richard, assistant secretary for population, refugees and migration at the State Department. She was kind enough to join us here in our D.C. studios. Thank you so much, Anne.

RICHARD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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