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Kiwi aid worker laments 'hopelessness' in Syrian refugee camps

Published: 6:08AM Monday March 17, 2014 Source: Fairfax

A New Zealand aid worker says the situation in overflowing Syrian refugee camps remains hopeless as the country marks three years of civil war.

The brutal conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and opposition forces has left an estimated 146,000 people dead, half of them reportedly civilians, and caused millions to flee.

Aid experts say up to four million people could be displaced by the end of this year, making it the worst exodus since the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago, and there is no end to the conflict or solution to the refugee crisis in sight.

Mark Mitchell, Caritas's Humanitarian Programmes co-ordinator, recently returned from Lebanon where more than 1.2 million refugees have sought safety. He said the situation there was dire.

"The feeling I had was in many ways a sense of hopelessness. At the moment Syrians I met in Lebanon feel there is no end in sight," he said.

Aid agencies were doing what they could, but there were still massive needs not being met, he said.

Syrian refugees, most of whom live outside the camps, were forced to find shelter where they could, including in abandoned chicken coops, storage sheds or other derelict structures, often without running water.

"People are living in cramped conditions, in tiny flats - 15 family members sharing a room. Physically and emotionally they feel trapped. They want to go home, but their homes and lives have been destroyed. No-one could tell me what they thought would or could happen, or what a solution might look like."

Most even had to pay rent though they were not legally allowed to work. Diseases such as cholera and polio were major concerns in the cramped and unhealthy conditions, Mr Mitchell said.

More than half of all Syrian refugees are aged under 18 and aid workers have raised concerns about a lost generation, suffering from a lack of education and the sense of safety of having a home. Many are being forced to fend for their families from a young age.

Many children were also dying from easily preventable reasons, Mr Mitchell said.

He said the refugee influx was also putting a huge strain on resources in Lebanon.

"Imagine if war started in Australia and we suddenly had 1.2 million refugees in an area the size of Northland? It's hard to imagine, but it is just the situation in Lebanon."

Mr Mitchell urged people to donate to aid organisations as the UN launches its largest-ever appeal for a single humanitarian crisis, saying $6.5 billion was needed to meet the need of all those affected.

New Zealanders have already donated more than $2m while the Government has given $12.5m to help those agencies.

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