If any doubt lingered that the crisis in Syria was grave and getting worse, the decision by the United Nations to launch its biggest aid appeal to date has doused it.
The UN, which estimates it will need $1.5bn (£0.9bn) to slow a “dramatically deteriorating humanitarian situation” in Syria, made the plea for aid in unusually strident terms.
The facts on the ground are stark and irrefutable. At least 1.5 million people, possibly as many as 2.2 million, are internally displaced and that figure is growing daily.
Over the past three days alone, an estimated 150,000 Palestinians have fled Syria’s largest refugee camp. Thousands of Palestinians in the 11 other camps are also reported to be considering leaving as violence steadily drives them from their refuges.
Collectively, the numbers of Syrians on the move dwarf any refugee crisis in recent memory. They are fleeing cities that have become ghettoised, initially through the rampant destruction of regime shelling and lately through an uncompromising two-way fight that is whittling away historical cities and starving their inhabitants.
Aleppo, and its surrounds, is now one of the hungriest places on Earth. Those who have fled have done so to survive – and not just because of the shelling. Many who remain in the rebel-held east of the city have the gaunt and haunted look of the chronically undernourished, with plaintive eyes desperately seeking respite.
Parts of Aleppo, much of Homs and even sections of Damascus are now in worse shape than even Sarajevo or Grozny ever were. The UN is trying to raise $520m to cater for the needs of the 4 million people, almost a quarter of Syria’s total population, who it thinks may need help by next summer.
Another $1bn will be needed to meet the needs of about 1 million refugees who have fled to neighbouring states. That figure is close to double the number of refugees registered in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt.
“Violence in Syria is raging across the country and there are nearly no more safe areas where people can flee and find safety,” Radhouane Nouicer, the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator for Syria, has said.
Much work needs to be done to turn the sought-after dollars into meaningful aid deliveries. Hubs desperately need to be established near border points. Agreements to secure supply lines have to be urgently struck with opposition groups. Political risks need to be taken, not just by global leaders, but by the chiefs of the humanitarian groups themselves, who are good at recognising need, but also adept at falling behind protocols that act as choke points.
Big decisions also need to be taken elsewhere as Syria sinks further towards catastrophe. Lebanon has limited capacity to take in fleeing Palestinians; Jordan does not seem to want them; and the journey to Turkey is too dangerous.
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, demanded that fleeing Palestinians should be allowed to enter the West Bank. The move would require the consent of Israel, which controls the borders, but it has yet to respond.
By nightfall on Wednesday, the appeal had still to be lodged with the UN Relief and Works Agency, which deals with Palestinian refugee issues in the territories.
The stakes in Syrian are enormous and the UN recognition of the scale of the crisis is a historic moment. But failure to get the aid moving soon will mean the next landmark could be even worse.