EU hopes for 'significant pledges' at Syria donor meet

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BRUSSELS (AP) — International donors have pledged around $7 billion in aid for Syria and Syrian refugees who fled the conflict-ravaged country, the European Union announced Thursday, as the war enters its ninth year.

But it was unclear how or when the money would be made available to those in need.

EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Christos Stylianides said the donors made a “collective pledge of almost $7 billion” for 2019, short of the $8 billion that the United Nations had hoped to raise for humanitarian aid inside Syria and for refugees living in difficult conditions in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, as well as Egypt.

“Now is the time to move fast, to translate these pledges into action on the ground, to make the most out of this funding in an effective and transparent way, in the best interest of the most vulnerable Syrians wherever they are,” Stylianides told donors in Brussels.

U.N. humanitarian aid chief Mark Lowcock said “we’re very pleased with the outcome,” and that the funds “will help to save millions of lives and protect civilians across Syria and across the region.”

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The EU, the world’s biggest aid donor, announced that it would provide 560 million euros ($633 million) this year, while planning to offer the same amount next year and in 2021.

It also pledged a significant slice of the money — some 1.5 billion euros ($1.7 billion) — for refugees in Turkey. This was previously offered by the EU to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2015 to help persuade him to get the Turkish coast guard to stop Syrian refugees and other migrants from setting out for Greece.

Lowcock said this additional 1.5 billion euros “is one of the reasons why it looks as though we’re going to have a good outcome on the pledging.”

The United States pledged more than $397 million in refugee support.

Syria’s war began in March 2011 with peaceful Arab Spring protests against President Bashar Assad. A harsh government crackdown and the rise of an insurgency plunged the country into war. Assad’s forces have made major gains in recent years with help from Russia and Iran, but large parts of the country are still controlled by various armed groups.

About 11.7 million Syrians depend on aid, and more than 6 million have been forced from their homes but remain in the country. U.N. agencies, non-governmental organizations and think tanks are warning that the conflict, which has killed more than 400,000 people and sparked a refugee exodus that destabilized Syria’s neighbors and also hit Europe, is far from over.

Some 6 million people have fled Syria, and refugees are reluctant to return, fearing violence, conscription or prison.

In a statement, 15 aid groups insisted that sustained follow-up is needed to improve Syrians’ lives.

“The financial commitments of donors is critical, but so is the will to see these commitments transform into changes for refugees and vulnerable host communities — and this will require a concerted effort from donors, host governments and aid agencies,” they said.

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“These risks civilians face, the ongoing conflict, crippling poverty and the lack of basic services are all significant barriers which need to be overcome before conditions are conducive to the return of refugees,” said the aid groups, including CARE, World Vision, Medecins du Monde, the International Rescue Committee and the Danish Refugee Council.

Before and during the conference, the EU continued to refuse to help rebuild Syria until a political settlement has been reached, even though some NGOs believe that stance is a serious obstacle to genuine aid efforts.

Absent from the donor conference are Syrians themselves — no government or opposition representatives have been invited. Civil society groups are concerned that donor countries want to pressure Syrian refugees to return, despite the dangers and uncertainties they face. Lowcock acknowledged that conditions are not yet right “for large-scale returns.”

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This story corrects the name of one group to International Rescue Committee.

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