LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The world must stop Syria becoming "another Afghanistan", the head of a major aid agency warned Monday as the United Nations launched a $6.5 billion appeal for the Middle East country.
David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), also said that starvation is now threatening large numbers of Syrians after the first winter storm of the season.
He told the BBC News channel that Syria was facing “an absolute catastrophe – a middle-income country dissolving in front of our eyes”.
Miliband, a former British foreign secretary in the Labour government, said the international community was failing Syria and called for world leaders to “step up several gears” to address the enormous humanitarian needs.
“We cannot afford the creation of another Afghanistan in the (heart) of the Middle East,” he told the BBC. “For the world to turn away is a terrible mistake.”
More than three decades of conflict in Afghanistan has caused a massive humanitarian crisis with millions of refugees fleeing into neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. The Afghan refugee population reached 6.6 million in 1990. It is down to 2.58 million now but is still the world's biggest refugee crisis although the Syrian refugee population is expected to overtake it soon.
The U.N. appeal for Syria, the biggest in history for a single emergency, coincides with the release of an IRC study which shows that bread prices in some areas have risen 500 percent in two years. Four in five communities surveyed said food was their greatest need.
“These findings show that starvation is now threatening large parts of the Syrian population,” Miliband said in a statement. “With polio on the loose, and a sub-zero winter already here, the people of Syria now face months of more death and despair.”
Other goods are also in short supply. Blankets are unavailable to buy in 95 percent of the communities surveyed, the IRC said. Where they are available, the $27 cost is more than 90 percent of the average monthly income. The study also showed there was limited access to clean water and severe shortages of basic medical items such as antibiotics, painkillers, and gauze in many regions.
Miliband also said international humanitarian law was being broken in Syria with pregnant women subjected to sniper fire and doctors and aid workers targeted.
The United Nations estimates nearly three-quarters of Syria's 22.4 million population will need humanitarian aid in 2014.
“We’re facing a terrifying situation here where, by the end of 2014, substantially more of the population of Syria could be displaced or in need of humanitarian help than not,” U.N. refugee chief António Guterres said at the launch of the appeal.
The United Nations is seeking $2.3 bln to help 9.3 mln people in Syria next year, and another $4.2 bln to help 4.1 mln Syrian refugees and host communities in five neighbouring countries - Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, and Iraq.