BERLIN (AP) — The number of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries could more than double to 3.5 million by the end of the year, the United Nations said Friday as the global body launched its biggest humanitarian appeal ever.
The U.N. asked donor countries for $5.2 billion to help alleviate the suffering of millions of people inside and outside Syria who are struggling with the effects of a conflict that has dragged on for more than two years.
"We expect that we might reach 3.5 million refugees by the end of the year," U.N. refugee chief Antonio Guterres told a news conference in Geneva. Around 1.6 million people have already sought refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Another 7,000 refugees are crossing the border each day, he said.
"If the fighting doesn't stop, we risk an explosion in the Middle East for which the international community is simply not prepared," Guterres said, noting that Lebanon and Jordan in particular have borne the financial brunt of hosting about 500,000 Syrian refugees each.
In an unusual move, the two countries joined the U.N. appeal and asked international donors for $450 million and $380 million, respectively.
Aid agencies requested just under $3 billion to help people who have fled Syria, and $1.4 billion to pay for humanitarian operations inside the country.
The new appeal presented at an international conference in Geneva is a sharp increase from the $3 billion the global body had previously estimated it would need this year, of which only $1.4 billion has so far been pledged.
Still, Guterres sought to put the $5.2 billion appeal into perspective, noting that it was dwarfed by recent bailouts of Western banks and equivalent to "what the Americans spend on ice cream in 32 days."
"These are massive figures, but those figures mask a humanitarian tragedy," said Valerie Amos, the U.N.'s top humanitarian official, citing the toll of more than 80,000 deaths since the uprising against Bashar Assad began in March 2011. "It's estimated that two years of conflict have set back Syria's development by two decades," she added.
Late last year the U.N. estimated that 4 million people needed aid inside Syria, a figure that has now grown to nearly 7 million. Meanwhile, the flood of refugees to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt has swelled to more than 1.5 million. Syria's pre-war population was estimated at about 22 million.
Food and medicine are particularly urgent. Many farmers in Syria are unable to tend their fields and the price of basic goods has risen steadily in recent months. The World Food Program said it plans to provide assistance to 4 million people inside Syria by September — in addition to more than 2 million refugees in neighboring countries — for which it needs $1 billion this year.
The World Health Organization warned recently that outbreaks of hepatitis, typhoid, cholera and dysentery are inevitable. A third of public hospitals in Syria aren't functioning and drinking water supplies have been seriously disrupted, Amos said.
Shelter for refugees is another urgent priority. Many of those who have fled Syria are living in crowded and sometimes squalid conditions, according to the aid group Doctors without Borders. Lebanon and Jordan asked donors for $450 million and $380 million respectively.
International efforts to bring the Syrian government and opposition groups to the negotiating table suffered a setback earlier this week, when the U.S. and Russia acknowledged there was no chance of holding a peace conference this month as previously planned. But even if diplomacy were to prevail, Syria's needs wouldn't cease, Amos said.
"The levels of destruction mean that even if a political solution was reached tomorrow, Syria would still need humanitarian aid in 2014," she said.