British Prime Minister David Cameron urged world leaders on Thursday to dig deep to help millions of victims of Syria's civil war — even as diplomatic efforts to end the conflict stuttered and stalled.
Pledges of billions of dollars in aid at an international donors' conference in London came as military bombardments in Syria intensified and tentative peace talks in Geneva were on hold.
"After almost five years of fighting, it's pretty incredible that as we come here in London in 2016 the situation on the ground is actually worse," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told delegates from some 70 countries.
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The one-day meeting, held under tight security near the British Parliament, is aimed at gathering donations and agreeing on plans for economic and educational projects to help the 4.6 million Syrians who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries including Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
Jordan's King Abdullah said his country could not sustain unaided the burden of what he said was almost 1.3 million Syrian refugees, a fifth of Jordan's population. The Jordanian figure includes all Syrians in the country, even those who came before 2011; the UN refugee agency says it has registered 630,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan.
"We are doing our best against very difficult odds," the king said, but added: "We have reached our limit."
"Our country will continue to do what we can do to help those in need, but it cannot be at the expense of our own people's welfare."
Suspended peace talks
The meeting opened hours after the latest UN-led bid to start peace talks in Geneva was suspended for three weeks — a sign of major difficulties. The faltering peace process increases pressure on donor countries to commit long-term aid to the victims of the five-year civil war.
The UN and regional countries say they need $9 billion ($12.5 billion US) in assistance for 2016 alone, as the situation in the region deteriorates,
Conference co-host Britain has pledged 1.2 billion pounds ($2.42 billion Cdn) in new aid between now and 2020, and the U.S. committed $900 million to bring total U.S. humanitarian spending on the five-year war to $5.1 billion.
Germany, which has taken in Europe's largest share of migrants — more than 1 million last year, including almost 430,000 Syrians — said it would give 2.3 billion euros ($3.5 billion Cdn) through 2018 to help Syrian refugees.
Previous aid conferences for Syria have repeatedly fallen short. Last year's, in Kuwait, raised just half its $7 billion target, forcing cuts to programs such as refugee food aid.
But this year's organizers — Britain, Germany, Norway, Kuwait and the UN — hope that finding jobs and schools for refugees can foster stability and keep displaced Syrians in the Middle East, slowing the chaotic migration of refugees to Europe.
"If ever there was a moment to take a new approach to the humanitarian crisis in Syria surely it is now," Cameron told delegates.
"After years of conflict we are witnessing a desperate movement of humanity as hundreds of thousands of Syrians fear they have no alternative than to put their lives in the hands of evil people-smugglers in search of a future."
Aid workers warn of a "lost generation" of Syrians if the 700,000 Syrian refugee children who are not attending school are not given an education.
Education campaigner Malala Yusafzai and 17-year-old Syrian refugee Mezon al-Melihan met with Cameron and other leaders to press for $1.4 billion for education for children in Syria and its neighbours.
"Without education, who will bring peace?" al-Melihan said.
The politicians, diplomats and aid groups will also seek ways of getting more humanitarian aid to suffering civilians inside Syria, and discuss plans to create economic incentives for countries that are under the strain of housing millions of newcomers.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said "the situation in Syria is as close to hell as we are likely to find on this earth" — and the international organization has been unable to deliver aid to hundreds of thousands of Syrians in besieged communities.
Neither the Syrian government nor rebel groups were due to attend the conference.
Syrian government forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, have increased the pace of attacks on opposition forces in recent days, as the Geneva peace talks faltered.
The UN's Ban told the conference it was "deeply disturbing that the initial steps of the talks have been undermined by the continuous lack of sufficient humanitarian access, and by a sudden increase of aerial bombing and military activities within Syria."
He said that "the coming days should be used to get back to the table, not to secure more gains on the battlefield."