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UN launches £3.3bn Syria aid appeal

The number of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries could more than double to 3.5 million by the end of the year, the United Nations has said as it launched its biggest humanitarian appeal ever. The UN asked donor countries for 5.2 billion dollars (£3.3 bn) 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," UN 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," Mr 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 UN appeal and asked international donors for 450 million dollars (£290 million) and 380 million dollars (£245 million), respectively. Aid agencies requested just under three billion dollars (£1.9 billion) to help people who have fled Syria, and 1.4 billion dollars (£900 million) to pay for humanitarian operations inside the country.

The new appeal presented at an international conference in Geneva is a sharp increase from the three billion dollars the UN had previously estimated it would need this year, of which only 1.4 billion dollars has so far been pledged.

Still, Mr Guterres sought to put the 5.2 billion dollars 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 UN'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 UN estimated that four million people needed aid inside Syria, a figure that has now grown to nearly seven 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 four million people inside Syria by September - in addition to more than two million refugees in neighbouring countries - for which it needs one billion dollars this year.

The World Health Organisation 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, Ms 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.

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