Melville Fernandez, Caritas Australia's Group Leader of Humanitarian Emergencies has spent the past two weeks in the crowded refugee camps of Turkey and Lebanon where millions of Syrians are struggling to survive.
- Catholic Communications
He also visited Lebanon where 700,000 Syrians forced to flee the carnage in their homeland are living in tents, converted sheds, stables - anywhere they can find shelter.
"What is happening inside and outside Syria is the worst and most complex humanitarian crisis of modern times," he says.
For the past 25 years, Melville has been on the frontline delivering emergency aid in the aftermath of some of the world's most devastating natural disasters. These have included the massive 7.6 Gujarat-India earthquake of 2001 which killed more than 20,000 and left many thousands more homeless. He was also among the aid workers on the ground giving immediate assistance and care to victims of the unprecedented tsunami on Boxing Day 2004 when 230,000 in 14 countries were swept to their deaths and entire villages and towns washed away.
He joined the first emergency workers flown to Myanmar in 2008 to help victims of Cyclone Nargis which cut a deadly swathe through the developing nation killing more than 230,000. But of all the disasters with which he has been involved Melville says what is happening in Syria is the worst he has seen and warns as winter approaches, the crisis has entered a deadly new phase.
"Those in camps in Turkey and Jordan, and those living in tents and settlements in Lebanon have little to protect themselves against the bitter cold of winter. Already we are seeing people with lung infections and respiratory problems. We are also starting to see children suffering from malnutrition," he says and points out that malnutrition has long-term consequences affecting the physical development of children as well as the development of their brains.
Hunger is also an increasing problem. So too is the threat of infectious diseases that will almost certainly spread rapidly in the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of the camps and refugee settlements. Already inside Syria there has been an outbreak of polio, a disease many thought had long been defeated with the widespread use of the Salk vaccine. But as Melville points out, with the Syrian conflict now in its third year, many Syrian children have missed out on protective vaccines and inoculations from diseases such as polio as well as other potential fatal illnesses.
Photo: Melville Fernandez, Group Leader of Humanitarian Emergencies for Caritas Australia