Want to help Aleppo? Give to large organizations ready to act when access improves, says minister

The devastating images of destruction and human suffering coming out of the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo this week have many Canadians asking how they can help. But the fast-changing, dangerous situation on the ground and the difficulty aid groups face in accessing the city mean the answer is complicated.

Volatile, confusing and dangerous situation on the ground means it's not so simple figuring how best to help

People prepare to be evacuated from a rebel-held sector of eastern Aleppo, Syria. The government recommends that Canadians who want to help donate to established humanitarian organizations that are best poised to act once access to the besieged city improves. (Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters)

As Canadians have been seeing devastating images of destruction coming out of the besieged city of Aleppo this week, some have taken to social media asking how they can help and debating the merits of donations to the various aid groups working in Syria.

Deciding who to trust with donation dollars in a civil war as complex as the Syrian conflict is even more complicated than in other disasters.

Canadians who want to donate to relief efforts for Syrians being evacuated out of Aleppo should consider giving to large organizations that can access people in need quickly, according to the minister of international development.

During a recent CBC News Facebook Live with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, many viewers asked in the comments section how they could help Syrians trapped in Aleppo.

"For a conflict of this importance and this complexity, I would say go with the most important humanitarian partners, such as the Red Cross, UNICEF, other UN agencies, UNHCR (the UN refugee agency)," Marie-Claude Bibeau said. 

"Because there are not a lot of small organizations who can get access at this time."

Access hasn't been easy even for large organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. At several points during the siege of Aleppo and recent airstrikes by the Assad government's forces and its allies, humanitarian groups have pleaded to be able to reach people trapped in the city, many of whom are in urgent need of medical care.

On Thursday, a Turkey-brokered ceasefire allowed for thousands of people to be evacuated from Aleppo. Those evacuations were led by the Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent.

The number of people who managed to leave the city has been difficult to pin down. Syrian state TV said more than 9,000 people — including women, children and wounded—were evacuated from previously rebel-held east Aleppo.

The Red Cross said 4,000 people made it out before the ceasefire fell apart Friday.

It was the first time the Red Cross had access to the rebel-held areas of Aleppo since April.

Doctors Without Borders has a team stationed 35 km from Aleppo with around 45 tonnes of medical supplies intended for Aleppo evacuees. The organization is also helping people who need urgent care get treatment in Turkey. As recently as October, the organization was begging for access to Aleppo.

There's definitely a real sense of danger for people moving on the ground and providing aid.- Melanie Gallant, Oxfam Canada spokeswoman

Save the Children, which said it had 300 aid workers trapped inside Aleppo during the siege, has brought food, medical and supply kits to the city of Idlib, west of Aleppo, where some of those who were evacuated from the city are being taken.

Oxfam workers include Aleppo residents operating generators and pumping safe water in the city under shelling. 

Aleppo residents stand next to a Syrian Red Crescent ambulance after arriving in western rural Aleppo. The evacuation of eastern Aleppo stalled Friday after an eruption of gunfire, as the Syrian government and rebels threw accusations at each other, raising fears that a peaceful surrender of the opposition enclave could fall apart with thousands of people believed to be still inside the city. (Thiqa News/Associated Press)

"One of our own water and sanitation facilities was completely destroyed by bombardment," said Melanie Gallant, an Oxfam Canada spokeswoman. "So, there's definitely a real sense of danger for people moving on the ground and providing aid.

"Even though there is news of the evacuation underway, of course, many people remain under siege in terrible conditions. They have very limited access to food and to water and to fuel for heating — they're also going through winter."

Aleppo only part of crisis

Bibeau said the Canadian government has already committed more than $1.1 billion over three years for a humanitarian response to the crises in Syria and Iraq. There are no immediate plans for more money, according to the minister.

"We have already committed almost 90 per cent of these funds to our major partners," she said. "They have the money ready. They are ready to intervene in the field as soon as they have access."

Her office said the government cannot disclose its partners in Syria for security reasons.

id groups rush to assist Syrian evacuees trying to leave Aleppo 1:10

The lack of access for independent observers has also made it hard for the government to assess the situation in Aleppo, she said. 

The United Nations now says there could be 30,000 people left in eastern Aleppo, and it is trying to determine whether it was a mistake to say, as it did earlier this month, that 200,000 peoplewere stranded there.

We're talking about tens of thousands of people caught in the middle of the crisis in Aleppo, but we have also to keep in mind that we're talking about millions of people who are displaced.- Marie-Claude Bibeau, minister of international development

​Bibeau said the government's aid focus is the people who have been displaced — which would include Syrians evacuatedfrom Aleppo during the recent ceasefire.

"We're talking about tens of thousands of people caught in the middle of the crisis in Aleppo, but we have also to keep in mind that we're talking about millions of people who are displaced or refugees in the surrounding countries," she said.

"We also have to keep supporting these people, giving them humanitarian assistance, helping Jordan and Lebanon to manage such an increase in their population."

White Helmets, UNICEF among recipients

Earlier this month, the government announced $4.5 million for a group known as Syria Civil Defence, or the White Helmets. The federal government said the money was aimed at helping the organization recruit and train female volunteers and expand their operations.

The White Helmets describe themselves as "neutral, impartial and humanitarian." In operation since 2013, the group receives funding from international governments, including the United Kingdom and the United States.

Critics of the group, however, have suggested that receiving funding from the U.K. and the U.S. has tainted the group's impartiality while others have suggested that the group is aligned with al-Qaeda in Syria. 

This photo provided by the Syrian Civil Defence group, also known as the White Helmets, shows volunteers inspecting damaged buildings in Aleppo this September. The Canadian government provided the White Helmets with $4.5 million in funding earlier this month, but some have criticized the group for allegedly taking sides in the conflict. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets/Associated Press)

Last April, the government committed $100 million to help refugees displaced in Syria, Iraq and Jordan. It was a top-up of a program launched in fall of 2015 to match any donations Canadians made for Syrian humanitarian relief.

Canadians donated $32 million to the relief effort. The previous Conservative government had said it would match donations up to $100 million and the Liberals agreed to honour that commitment and extended the program beyond its original end-of-2015 deadline to spur more donations from the public.

Some of the funds were given to a UNICEF vaccination program.

Bibeau said the government is not considering a matching fund right now since it has already made a significant multi-year commitment.

with files from Thomson Reuters, The Associate Press