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stephen cornish

We are failing the Syrian people. Right now, women, men and children are suffering and dying needlessly. We can and must do more to help them.

I recently returned from a two-week mission to Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. There I met with Syrians struggling to survive a brutal civil war that has so far killed more than 70,000 people and forced more than one and a half million to flee to neighbouring countries.

I also met with aid workers providing lifesaving assistance – from my own organization, Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF), and from the few others present.

One thing became absolutely clear to me on this trip. We, the international community, are not living up to our responsibility to meet the escalating humanitarian needs of the people caught up in this intractable war.

Truly, we are failing the Syrian people. The medical needs are overwhelming – from shrapnel injuries that go untreated for lack of accessible care, to pregnant women who must risk their lives to deliver their babies, to sufferers of chronic illnesses like diabetes and cancer who can't obtain treatment, to the miserable and unsanitary conditions of the camps for displaced people.

I cannot overstate the scale and severity of the humanitarian emergency I witnessed. The Syrian conflict is already the world's largest refugee crisis. We can do more to save lives and reduce suffering, and we must do it now.

What can we do? The crisis requires political will and leadership on the part of national governments to persuade Damascus, opposition groups and Syria's neighbours to increase humanitarian access and reduce barriers to aid. It also requires more resources to meet the escalating needs.

Targeting of medical personnel and restrictions on crossing the constantly shifting frontlines are major impediments to providing lifesaving care where it is needed most. Syrians often have to risk their lives on long, circuitous journeys in order to get medical help. All parties to the conflict must be pressured to respect medical facilities, as well as the rights of aid workers and their patients.

In opposition-held territories in the north of the country, where MSF is operating three hospitals, there are too few aid organizations present to meet the needs. The increased security risks are also making it difficult to work.

Inside government-controlled areas, restrictions on the United Nations agencies and on the Red Crescent hinder their abilities to respond in areas where needs are highest. Despite repeated requests, the government still refuses to give MSF and others permission to work, which further impedes the aid effort.

Outside Syria, the UN expects the number of refugees to reach three million by year's end. Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq are doing what they can to care for the refugees. But these countries are stretched to the limit and need help, in the form of financing, technical assistance, and more aid organizations to help them respond to the unprecedented flow of refugees.

Resources have been promised, but now they need to be mobilized. In January of this year, 60 countries pledged more than $1.5-billion in aid for the Syrian people. So far, only a fraction of this money has materialized. Donor countries not only need to honour their existing commitments, they need to significantly increase them to keep pace with the escalating needs.

In many camps, conditions are woefully inadequate. Relief supplies and food are being stretched to cover the steady stream of new arrivals. Insufficient access to clean water and sanitation presents the risk of disease outbreaks as we move into the hot summer months.

For the refugees inside Lebanon, medical care is frequently poor or nonexistent – about half are unable to gain access to it. During my visit, I met a pregnant woman who was ready to risk returning to Syria to deliver her baby, because she couldn't afford to pay medical fees for a caesarean section.

Neighbouring countries should also be encouraged to do more to facilitate the delivery of aid for Syrian refugees – especially by removing bureaucratic hurdles. This includes faster registration of international aid organizations, reducing barriers to import relief supplies and easing visa restrictions for aid workers.

The conflict in Syria shows no sign of abating, and the needs of the Syrian people are increasing daily. There is no excuse for our continued humanitarian failure. We must act now.

Stephen Cornish is Executive Director of Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Canada.

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