BEIRUT: With the international community effectively paralyzed, the Syria crisis is “getting worse every day,” former United Nations humanitarian affairs chief Jan Egeland said as he visited Lebanon this week in his new role as secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council. Egeland predicted that the events of the past two-and-a-half years in the region would be looked upon as “a stain, a black chapter, in the history of international cooperation.”
The Norwegian, who has worked on humanitarian emergencies for more than 25 years, lambasted the international community’s failure both to limit the magnitude of the Syria crisis and provide adequate relief.
“The world should have done much more to stop this becoming the kind of catastrophic war that it has become,” he said. “The lack of looking at this [conflict] as a man-made, humanitarian catastrophe where civilians, children and women die massively every day has ... meant that people now have opted for senseless bickering and debates.”
This has “paralyzed not only the Syrians in agreeing on how to go forward, it’s paralyzed the regional actors, it’s paralyzed the world community, it’s paralyzed the Security Council.”
Egeland, who served as U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief 2003-06 and headed up the international relief effort for the 2006 war in Lebanon, said he had not “seen this kind of global paralysis ... paralysis for any creative and united action, since the build up to the Iraq war.”
“I feel in my bones now, we will all, as Lebanese and as Russians, and Iranians and Saudi Arabians and Americans and Europeans and Norwegians, we will all say in 10 and 20 years from now, ‘How could we have been so senseless in 2011, ’12 and ’13?’”
He added: “because we are not stopping this, it is just getting worse every day. Thousands are displaced every day.”
Speaking to The Daily Star on the day the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees registered the country’s 700,000th Syrian refugee, Egeland was also clear that the world had not done enough to assist Syria’s neighbors as they struggle to host and meet the needs of roughly 2 million refugees.
“The international support has not been large enough ... there is too little humanitarian assistance. There is too little in neighboring countries [and] too little inside Syria,” he said, declaring unequivocally that Gulf, Western and Asian countries all have “more than adequate resources” to provide further help.
Since the war began, Egeland has visited the city of Aleppo as part of his former job as director of Human Rights Watch Europe. He said that “one of the main reasons so many people flee is that there is too little relief inside [Syria],” blaming this on insecurity and lack of access, but also on relief organizations’ lack of resources.
Egeland’s trip to Lebanon is part of his first field visit since he took up the post of head of the NRC earlier this month and his third stop on a tour of Syria’s neighbors.
He spent Thursday visiting NRC projects in the Bekaa Valley and Friday in the southern city of Tyre.
The NRC, which employs more than 150 national staff along with several international specialists, has worked in Lebanon since 2006, running projects across a variety of sectors, including education, shelter and legal aid.
While commending both the shelter provision work of his colleagues and the generosity of the Lebanese host communities, Egeland was also realistic about the potential need for formalized camps in the future, saying: “We want however to offer Lebanon the option of having transitional camps and temporary camps for people as the present capacity of shelters is at breaking point.”
“Everyone wants with a noncamp solution, and I can understand the reluctance of the government [to build camps], but the number of people coming across the border has not gone down and there are not many options and possibilities for return in the near future.”
Egeland is well acquainted with Lebanon’s fractious political terrain: He first came to the country as a peacekeeper with the first United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon following the 1978 Israeli invasion and has returned countless times since on missions for the Red Cross, the Norwegian government and the U.N.
But when asked about the NRC’s operations here in the face of Lebanon’s apparent unraveling stability, the secretary-general was adamant that far from being curtailed, the NGO’s programs would be stepped up.
“We are clearly stepping up our operations. We work with Lebanese partners, both governmental and nongovernmental partners and we work with the United Nations system here,” he said. “I don’t see us at all limiting our operations, but we have to be careful in some parts of the country.”