Donor nations pledged on Thursday to give billions of dollars in aid to Syrians as world leaders gathered for a conference to tackle the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with Turkey reporting a new exodus of tens of thousands fleeing air strikes.
With Syria’s five-year-old civil war raging and another attempt at peace negotiations called off in Geneva after just a few days, the London conference will aim to address the needs of some 6 million people displaced within Syria and more than 4 million refugees in other countries.
Underlining the desperate situation on the ground in Syria, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the meeting that tens of thousands of Syrians were on the move toward his country to escape aerial bombardments on the city of Aleppo.
“Sixty to seventy thousand people in the camps in north Aleppo are moving towards Turkey. My mind is not now in London, but on our border – how to relocate these new people coming from Syria?” he said. “Three hundred thousand people living in Aleppo are ready to move towards Turkey.”
Turkey is already hosting more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees. Jordan and Lebanon are the other countries bearing the brunt of the Syrian refugee exodus.
“Looking into the eyes of my people, and seeing the hardship and distress they carry, I must tell you we have reached our limit,” said Jordan’s King Abdullah.
Several speakers also made the point that while the situation of refugees was bad, that of Syrians trapped inside the country enduring bombardments, sieges and in some places starvation was far worse.
United Nations agencies are appealing for $7.73 billion to cope with the Syrian emergency this year, and countries in the region are asking for an additional $1.2 billion.
Conference co-hosts Britain, Norway and Germany were the first to announce their pledges.
Britain promised an extra £1.2 billion ($1.76 billion) by 2020, raising its total commitment to £2.3 billion. Norway pledged $1.17 billion over the next four years, while Germany said it would give €2.3 billion ($2.57 billion) by 2018.
The almost five-year-old conflict has killed an estimated 250,000 people and stoked the spread of Islamist terrorism across the Middle East and North Africa.
For European nations, improving the humanitarian situation in Syria and neighboring countries is crucial to reducing incentives for Syrians to travel to Europe, where a large refugee influx has put many countries under severe strain.
“The German government is convinced that the refugee movements can be solved by fighting their reason for leaving. London is a major step to come closer to this aim,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters at the conference.
A U.N. envoy halted his attempts to conduct Syrian peace talks on Wednesday after the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes, advanced against rebel forces north of Aleppo, choking opposition supply lines from Turkey to the city.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the first steps in the Geneva peace talks had been undermined by a lack of sufficient humanitarian access and by a sudden increase in aerial bombing and military activity on the ground.
“The coming days should be used to get back to the table, not to secure more gains on the battlefield,” he said.
The conference will focus particularly on the need to provide an education for displaced Syrian children and job opportunities for adults, reflecting growing recognition that the fallout from the Syrian war will be very long term.