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Syria crisis still ‘appalling’: aid chief David Miliband

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Istanbul (AFP) – The head of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and former British foreign secretary David Miliband on Thursday said the humanitarian crisis in war-torn Syria was still “appalling” despite a fragile ceasefire.

“The fact that the war has gone to reduced intensity has led to much reduced popular media attention on what remains an appalling crisis inside Syria,” Miliband told AFP in an interview on the sidelines of the World Tourism Forum in Istanbul.

He said there are “seven million people displaced from their homes and continued low-level fighting that terrorises people and the humanitarian crisis outside the country,” he said.

A ceasefire brokered by Russia, an ally of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus, and Turkey, which backs rebel forces, has been in place since late December.

However, both rebels and Damascus have complained of repeated violations.

More than 310,000 people have been killed and more than half of the country’s population displaced since Syria’s conflict erupted in 2011 with protests against Assad’s rule.

Miliband, who has been running the IRC since 2013, said one of his priorities is “to make the case that the lesson of history is when the world forgets these humanitarian crises they become political crises again.”

He added: “They are not just a humanitarian emergency, they become a political emergency.”

“And that’s something that has caused terrible problems across not just the Middle East but across Europe in the course of the Syria crisis. It’s something we really cannot afford.”

– ‘Do aid differently’-

With under-reported conflicts raging in areas including Yemen and South Sudan, Miliband said the world aid system was not only facing the Syria crisis but other emergencies that outstripped the capacity of the humanitarian system.

Humanitarian challenges are of a different nature, he noted, as refugees increasingly live in cities rather than camps and stay long-term in their host countries.

“Refugees are much less likely to be in camps these days,” he said.

Turkey says it is home to over 2.7 million Syrian refugees but less than 10 percent live in an internationally-respected system of camps.

The vast majority live in towns and cities throughout the country, especially in the southeast but also urban centres like Istanbul. Few are also thinking about going home as the war drags on.

“Refugees are out of their own countries for much longer period of time, so you have to think about education, employment, not just survival when it comes to refugee policy,” Miliband said.

“We also need to do aid differently. We need to put priority on employment and on education as well as on social policy. We need to address the needs of urban refugees” not just policies on camps, he said.

“We need to reform the system as well as expand it.”

Miliband, a centrist who was foreign secretary for the Labour party, was narrowly beaten to the party leadership by his brother Ed who then himself resigned after losing the 2015 general election.

With Labour still in turmoil, Miliband is rumoured to be in the running for a high-profile job at the United Nations in New York, in charge of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Asked about his future career planning, Miliband said he was “focused” on his current job.

“I am focused on running a large NGO called International Rescue Committee … We work in war zones, fragile states,” he said.

“I feel I am doing work that is of value and of interest to me, so I am focused on that.”

Miliband only said when asked if he had any plans to return to politics: “I am planning to make sure I do my job really well.”

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