WASHINGTON — Although numerous countries and organizations are working together and putting billions of dollars into relief efforts, “the scale of suffering has outpaced their ability to respond,” according to Catholic Relief Services Chief Operating Officer Sean Callahan.
“Despite these generous responses, the exodus to Europe cries out that so much more must be done,” Callahan told members of Congress on Tuesday.
Over the last three years, Catholic Relief Services and their partners have assisted nearly 800,000 people and spent over $110 million in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Churches, NGOs and neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan have lent a helping hand to refugees.
But even the cooperation of all these groups is not enough, said Callahan, who recently traveled to southeastern Europe, where he saw firsthand the thousands of refugees entering Europe each day.
In fact, according to an analysis by Giving USA, which provides snapshots of U.S. philanthropy, groups focused on international affairs have suffered the biggest drop in charitable giving, down 3.6% from last year.
He spoke about his experiences in an Oct. 20 testimony before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the Helsinki Commission.
“It is heartbreaking to imagine walking in their shoes, to imagine one’s life in such chaos,” he said. “First, suffering violence in one’s home community; then biding time in a neighboring country, humbly accepting charity. And then finally to conclude that your family has no future, and so someone must undertake a supreme act of love and sacrifice, risking a treacherous and unknown journey so that the rest of the family may live.”
Guided by little more than their phones and social-media updates about which border crossings are open, many refugees run into serious challenges, and some are taken advantage of along their trip, which costs roughly $3,000 a person, Callahan said.
Under the umbrella of Caritas Internationalis, Catholic Relief Services is working with partners in Serbia, Greece, Macedonia, Albania and Croatia, as well as other faith-based organizations.
Right now, a large focus is just making sure the refugees’ basic needs of food, clothing and shelter are being met. Since many of those crossing over from Syria are sleeping out in the open, Catholic Relief Services and its partners have set up shelters with beds, showers and toilets. For those who need medical attention, an aid station staffed by doctors has been set up on the Hungarian border to care for “the most vulnerable refugees.”
Looking forward, Callahan indicated that the crisis has become so great that long-term relief must be sought.
“The exodus of Syrians and Iraqis from the region signals a new phase in the Syrian conflict,” he said.
He urged Congress to support the bipartisan Middle East Refugee Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act, which would release $1 billion from the federal government for response to the refugee crisis, including resettlement of some to the United States.
So far, the U.S. has provided $4.5 billion in funding, but according to experts, $20 billion a year in the Middle East and $30 billion a year Europe would help fund “adequate” support for the refugee crisis, Callahan said.
“We must continue robust funding and seek to collaborate with other donors, including the Gulf states, to maximize efficiency and effectiveness,” he said.
Callahan suggested that efforts to protect and educate child refugees — of whom there are as many as 1.5 million — be redoubled.
The U.S. can also continue its “historic leadership in refugee resettlement” by opening its doors to significantly more refugees, he said.
“When the U.S. helps to resettle particularly vulnerable populations, including religious and ethnic minorities and those with complex medical needs, it helps ease the burden of neighboring countries hosting particularly large refugee populations.”
Looking at the crisis on an even larger scale, the U.S. should work towards a “political solution” to the conflict in Syria, Callahan continued.
“The administration should work tirelessly with other governments to obtain a cease-fire, initiate serious negotiations, provide impartial humanitarian assistance and encourage efforts to build an inclusive society in Syria, including Christians and other minorities,” he said.
Similarly, the U.S. could work with the United Nations to create greater access to humanitarian support in Syria by calling for adherence to U.N. Security Council resolutions 2139 and 2165, which allow for “rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access and authorizes U.N. humanitarian agencies to provide border-crossing assistance with the notification, rather than the consent of, the Syrian government.”
Callahan added, “Unless the United States and other actors reinforce these resolutions, both these lives and the future of international humanitarian law are at great risk.”
Register staff contributed to this report.