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Ottawa extends pledge to match donations to victims of Syrian conflict

A Syrian refugee carries her baby on her back as she walks at a refugee camp in the town of Hosh Hareem in Lebanon, Jan. 4, 2016.

Hassan Ammar/AP

The federal government has extended its commitment to match donations to registered charities that are helping victims of the Syrian conflict after the money offered by Canadians over the past four months fell far short of an anticipated $100-million target.

Marie-Claude Bibeau, the Minister of International Development, told reporters on Thursday that the previous government's offer to double the amount of eligible Canadian donations will continue until Feb. 29.

The Conservative government made the initial pledge to match contributions up to $100-million in September, the week after the world reacted in horror to the photograph of a drowned Syrian toddler on a Turkish beach. It expired on Dec. 31, by which time the donations had not yet reached $12-million.

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By way of contrast, Canadian donors pledged $230-million in disaster relief in the weeks after a massive tsunami washed across southeast Asia in 2004. And they offered more than $200-million in humanitarian aid when an earthquake rocked Haiti in 2010.

Aid organizations say it is more difficult to get people to reach into their pockets to help those who have been uprooted by a prolonged conflict like the one in Syria, which is now into its fifth year.

The government money is for donations to help Syrians who remain in the Middle East rather than those who are coming Canada through sponsorships.

When asked if she was disappointed by the amount Canadians had donated to assist victims of the crisis, which has displaced an estimated 11 million people, Ms. Bibeau said every dollar counts.

"We have focused very much on welcoming refugees," the minister said, flanked by representatives of aid groups that petitioned the government to continue matching donations. "So that's why we are extending this matching fund, to say there are so many to come, to welcome, but don't forget there are so many others to help over there."

The money will be used to provide food, water, shelter and health care to the millions who have fled their homes amid civil war and the influx of Islamic State militants to their communities.

Since the start of the conflict in March, 2011, the Canadian government has committed nearly a billion dollars in humanitarian aid, development and security assistance. But the support from individual Canadians over the coming months will be crucial, Ms. Bibeau said.

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Julie Delahanty, the executive director of Oxfam Canada, said there is no question that it is easier to persuade Canadians to donate money to help victims of a natural disaster where the effects are immediate and the media interest is intense, than to a protracted crisis like Syria, which has been more of a "slow burn."

"It's a difficult psychology to when you have an earthquake and you are seeing pictures of a lot of people all at the same time being affected," she said.

In fact, the offer by the government to match funds was effective, prompting millions of dollars in donations over four months when they had been just trickling before September, she said. And the extension will undoubtedly remind Canadians that the need is still great, Ms. Delahanty added.

David Morley, the president of UNICEF Canada, said the conflict has forced almost half of all Syrians to leave their homes, with more than four million fleeing the country.

"Syrian children and their families have endured nearly five years of brutal war, they have witnessed unspeakable violence, they have been deprived of their most basic needs," Mr Morley said. "These children are more than reason enough for all of us as Canadians and all of us as agencies to take action."

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