The Canadian government is extending to Feb. 29 the deadline for matching charitable donations toward an emergency relief fund to help Syrian refugees, says International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau.
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Bibeau said Canadians have donated $12 million since the government announced in September it would match donations made to registered Canadian charities up to $100 million.
By comparison, a matching fund announced for the 2010 earthquake in Haiti raised $220 million.
Initially, Canadians had until Dec. 31 to donate to the Syria Emergency Relief Fund.
The fund was created days after the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi was photographed after it washed up on the Turkish shore.
The previous Conservative government made the announcement during the recent election campaign amid criticism of what was perceived as a tepid response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria and neighbouring countries.
To date, the Canadian government has given over $969 million in humanitarian assistance and development support to address the crisis caused by the Syrian civil war.
Relief efforts abroad somewhat hampered
Bibeau was flanked by representatives from nearly a dozen Canadian charitable organizations accepting donations for overseas Syrian relief efforts.
Aid agencies acknowledged Thursday that the effort to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada has to some degree hampered efforts to raise money for overseas work.
They asked the government late last year to extend the matching funds deadline, saying Canadians needed to be reminded they could also help Syrians abroad.
"Now that (Canadians) have a face to put to the conflict, they understand a little bit more," said Gillian Barth, chief executive officer of CARE Canada.
"And now I think the messaging is important to get to them — you've seen them here, they still have family in Syria, it's important that we help support them because the needs there are tremendous."
Syrian towns plagued by starvation
A U.N. official said Thursday that the Syrian government has agreed to allow humanitarian assistance into three beleaguered villages following reports of deaths from malnutrition in the area.
The aid group Doctors Without Borders said 23 patients have died of starvation since Dec. 1 at a health centre in one of three villages — including six infants under a year old and five adults over 60.
Two of the villages in question are the adjacent Shiite villages of Foua and Kfarya in the country's north, which have been besieged by anti-government militants for more than a year. The third is the village of Madaya near the border with Lebanon, which has been under siege by government forces since early July.
Photographs showing emaciated children and reported as coming from Madaya spread around the world Thursday.
Aid agencies said access to some parts of Syria has been an issue for some time and they are doing all they can to ensure humanitarian relief quickly gets where it is needed most.
"We're on it," said Hossam Elsharkawi, associate vice president, international operations for the Canadian Red Cross.
"It's horrific those images. I know that no child should have to starve like that, no person, no human being should have to starve like that but this is the ugly reality of the conflict and the world we live in today."