United Nations raises $6.5 billion for Syrian refugees as ISIS surrenders its last stronghold in the country

As the Syrian civil war enters its ninth year, the United Nations has raised more than USD $6.5 billion from international donors for Syrian and other refugees. "It looks at the moment that we will raise at least $6.5 billion, possibly more than that. Possibly close to 7 billion," UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock told reporters at the donor conference in Brussels.

Of the donations, USD $1.7 billion has already been offered to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, by the European Union in 2015 as part of its deal to persuade him to get the Turkish coastguard to stop Syrian refugees and other migrants from setting out for Greece. In 2015, the EU promised Erdogan 3 billion Euros to help manage the refugee burden, plus a further 3 billion if the first tranche was correctly spent. These funds are in addition to the money paid by EU member governments – funded by taxpayer dollars – to Turkey to keep migrants in the country. The EU is the world's biggest aid donor and has announced that it would provide USD $633 million in donations this year alone, while planning to offer the same amount next year and in 2021. The United States pledged more than USD $397 million.

This week, U.S.-backed Syrian fighters said a "large number" of Islamic State (ISIS) militants and their families are surrendering a day after intense fighting in the last speck of land the extremists still hold in eastern Syria. Some fighters surrendered in recent weeks, but hard-core militants, including many foreigners, are still holed up in the shrinking space along the eastern banks of the Euphrates River. Since early February, more than 10,000 civilians were evacuated from the ISIS-held pocket, most of them family members of ISIS fighters. The extremist group's self-declared caliphate once covered a vast territory straddling both Syria and Iraq.

However, the UN said that USD $3.3 billion is needed to help meet Syria's own aid needs this year, plus a further USD $5.5 billion to support neighbouring countries where most Syrians are seeking refuge. About 11.7 million Syrians still depend on aid and more than 6 million of them have been forced from their homes but remain in the country. UN agencies, non-governmental organizations, and think tanks warn that the situation is far from over. Around 80 percent of people inside Syria live in extreme poverty, and refugees are reluctant to return, fearing violence, conscription, or prison. Almost 6 million people have fled Syria to Lebanon, and Turkey.

When the migrant crisis from the Middle East and Africa into Europe began in 2015, Saudi Arabia refused to take in the refugees despite having 100,000 air-conditioned tents sitting empty. Located roughly 2,150 miles from Syria in the city of Mina, the tents that can house up to 3 million people are only used for a few days each year to house pilgrims on their way to Mecca for the hajj – an annual Islamic pilgrimage. These huge tents are fireproof and equipped with kitchen and bathroom facilities.

No Gulf country has signed the UN Convention on Refugees, an accord standardizing the level of treatment of people fleeing to new countries. Other reports indicate that Saudi Arabia has not taken in any new refugees, nor has Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates – countries that are culturally more similar, closer in proximity, and therefore more pragmatic destinations for refugees and migrants.

In 2015, Saudi authorities insisted they had done all they could to support refugees by allowing them residency in the country but say they do not brag about their support to the media. Instead, they did so to “preserve their dignity and safety and gave them complete freedom of movement.” The representative added that Saudi Arabia has given USD $700 million in humanitarian aid to Syrians and at the time the Saudi officials offered to build 200 new mosques in Germany to accommodate Muslim refugees.