While the world applauds the recent agreement on chemical weapons in Syria as a step toward peace, there is no time for false comfort. For the millions of Syrians who have been uprooted from their homes, the more pressing questions of life and death stem from basic concerns: food, water, shelter and medicine. And with the onset of winter, the challenge to survive grows even more daunting.
Winter’s bitter cup will add to the suffering and grief that wreak havoc among the 2.2 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. In the coming months, more than a million displaced children will find themselves in sub-zero temperatures. Many have no shoes or socks. Many live in abandoned buildings or makeshift shelters with feeble linings not intended to keep the icy night temperatures at bay. They have no timber or fuel to help them keep warm, and they lack the clothing and blankets to prevent the implacable cold from invading their bodies.
Last winter, humanitarian agencies helped more than 300,000 refugees get through the cold. But this winter is forecast to be one of the harshest in years. And the scale of the problem is far worse than a year ago, as there are roughly seven times as many refugees. Half of them are children , and more than 800,000 are 12 or younger.
Within Syria, more than 4 million people are displaced — twice as many as last year — and an additional 6 million need life-saving aid. Their needs become far more intense when temperatures dip below freezing. Getting relief supplies to internally displaced Syrians remains an enormous challenge, as many are trapped in areas engulfed by fighting.
Humanitarian agencies like ours plan to distribute blankets, clothing, stoves and materials to weatherproof shelters before winter bears down. But as the cold season approaches, we have to rethink the scale and nature of how to best respond.
The bottom line is funding. Humanitarian needs in Syria and surrounding countries are nearly $4.4 billion, according to United Nations estimates. So far, only half of this amount has been raised. More support must come before winter takes a preventable, harsh toll.
Second, the international community needs to provide help where it is needed most. Humanitarian aid — and much media attention — is focused on refugee camps. Yet three-quarters of refugees are surviving in villages and towns, without access to the health care, water and food that are available in camps. Needs are particularly acute for those living in urban areas, hosted by communities that are struggling to make ends meet.
Third, more means would allow aid groups to be more innovative in how we deliver support. In urban settings, where markets are working effectively, direct cash transfers and vouchers can help refugees buy clothes, blankets, fuel and food while bolstering the local economy. Our agencies and their partners are providing tens of thousands of families with monthly assistance through ATM cards in Lebanon and Jordan, but these programs could be more effective and scaled up with more funding for training and distribution.
Fourth, with neighboring countries stretched nearly beyond their limits by the refugee influx, more international support must go to these communities and public services. Lebanon’s population has increased by nearly a quarter, putting huge pressure on infrastructure and supplies. If the conflict in Syria continues, unemployment in Lebanon probably will double by the end of next year, and the number of Lebanese living in poverty could rise by nearly 20 percent. Stress on host communities is growing in Jordan, Iraq and Turkey as well. In this situation, aid must help refugees as well as local people. These needs go far beyond limited humanitarian capacity; robust and longer-term support from development partners will be required.
It is possible to make a large-scale difference for millions of Syrians. But with temperatures dropping, we are running out of time. Many families have been traveling for months and have been forced to move many times, from staying with friends and relatives to sleeping in public buildings and ever-larger camps. Most have exhausted any savings, sold off jewelry and other possessions and are unprepared for the costs and perils of winter.
There is a short window to help Syrians survive the coming season. They have suffered enough. We must do everything possible to keep them safe and warm.
António Guterres is the United Nations high commissioner for refugees. David Miliband is president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee.