Opinion

From Ukraine to Gaza, 2023 was extremely tough. But there's hope among the crisis and conflict

IRC UK executive director Laura Kyrke-Smith reflects on the humanitarian landscape of 2023, and how we must rise to meet the growing global challenges in 2024

The Gaza strip has seen hundreds of civilian casualties in recent days. Image: Yasser abu raya, via Wikimedia Commons

2023 has been one of the toughest years for my International Rescue Committee (IRC) colleagues serving people caught up in conflict and crisis around the world. It’s been even tougher for the people we serve. But as 2024 dawns, it is crucial that we find cause for optimism and continued action – and it is possible.

This coming February marks two years since conflict escalated in Ukraine. Yet today, fighting continues, damaging civilian infrastructure and putting 17 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

February also marks a year since Turkiye and Syria were hit by two massive earthquakes and many aftershocks, killing tens of thousands of people and injuring many more. The region was already reeling from years of conflict which decimated the health system, leaving it unable to cope.

And we live in great sadness and fear of what will happen in Gaza, currently the deadliest place on earth. Food and water supplies are dwindling and the healthcare system has collapsed while attacks on hospitals have left many without access to any treatment. Aid supply is a fraction of what is needed and aid access is severely restricted. With 3 million people expected to require humanitarian assistance next year, the occupied Palestinian territory is second on our flagship Emergency Watchlist.

Meanwhile at home, the UK government has only hardened its stance towards people caught up in deadly crises, like the Afghans who have risked their lives to cross the Channel. Cruel and expensive deterrence initiatives will not “stop the boats” but only cause further suffering to the people on them.

And yet, the updates that colleagues and clients share are often stories of hope.

Take Halyna, who fled Ukraine for the UK when war broke out, and made the difficult decision to stay in London permanently as the situation worsened. A marketing manager and journalist in Ukraine, she found work here but was frustrated at being unable to use the skills she had developed at home. After enrolling in the IRC’s leadership programme, her expanded skillset led her to become part of a Lewisham Council project focused on employability training for Ukrainians. She bonded with another IRC client and the pair hope to extend employability support to Lewisham’s Afghan community.

Or consider Aysha’s story in Syria. Months on from the earthquake, she feels like the earth still shakes all the time. Her family lost their home, belongings and livelihood. After enrolling in an IRC programme that provides women with cooking, sewing and other skills, empowering them to earn their own income, she found some hope. Aysha learnt to cook food to sell to shops and now makes an income, helping to provide for her family. She says the IRC “helped most of this village’s women to start their own projects, rather than to stay idle at home”.

The scale of human suffering may seem overwhelming. But Halyna and Aysha remind us that we can make a difference – and that we can all be part of the solutions that are going to improve their lives.

Those in government should remember their potential to make a difference to people’s lives. Looking ahead to 2024, with a general election looming, anti-refugee rhetoric is sadly likely to increase. In 2024, all parties should put compassion back into refugee policy, pursuing an orderly asylum system, focusing on clearing the asylum backlog, strengthening the asylum system, and scaling up safe routes. Beyond ensuring our aid budget reaches the most vulnerable, the government must leverage all development and diplomatic measures to effect change, particularly for those on the frontlines of crises.

But we all have a role. Solidarity is important and we can all keep people who are suffering in our thoughts and use our voices to stand up for them. In Jordan this year, I met Syrian refugees who described not having enough money for food and very little access to education. But what they said was this: What matters most to us is that the world hasn’t forgotten about us.

And those who can afford to give can do so knowing that it can make the crucial difference to people’s lives. We couldn’t do what we do at the IRC without the generosity of all of our partners (including corporate), but more importantly, the British public, who have been so generous despite the challenges at home.

It has never been more important for this country to continue standing with people whose lives have been upended by conflict and crisis, advocating for them, and supporting them to survive, recover and rebuild their lives.

If you’d like to find out more about the work the IRC does, click here

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