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Where’s the public outcry over Syrian humanitarian crisis, experts ask

VANCOUVER – Footage of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the suburbs of Damascus on Wednesday once again highlighted the death and suffering that have become commonplace in Syria.

Millions of people have fled their homes and the death toll is believed to have topped 100,000 since the conflict began more than two years ago.

Kyle Matthews, senior deputy director for the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights, calls it “one of the most brutal conflicts [in the world] in the past 20 years.”

Explainer: Verifying videos of the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria

While the federal government and everyday Canadians have contributed money to humanitarian aid, he said the public outcry over the crisis has not grown strong enough.

Matthews said countries such as Iran and Russia are providing military and political support to the Syrian regime — which other foreign governments have criticized –but you don’t see the same outcry from the public that occurs in other situations.

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“You heard a lot of talk [about] boycotting the Sochi Olympics to show Russia a lesson over gay rights,” he said.

Matthews said he addressed the idea of boycotting the 2014 Winter Games over Russia’s support for Syria more than a year ago.

Man vs. nature

Matthews said the reaction to a humanitarian crisis in a time of war is much different than what you see following a natural disaster, for example.

“People and governments open up their cheque books and really want to help [victims] because they have been dealt with unfairly by Mother Nature,“ he said.

“But when there’s a civil war or something like a genocide, or something in between like we’re seeing in Syria, people kind of fall back and lay blame, saying ‘Well, it’s all their fault’ or ‘They brought it on themselves.’”

Read more: UN: Syria refugees could reach 3.5M this year

David Morley, president and CEO of UNICEF Canada, agrees man-made crises get a much different reaction from the public.

He said part of that is political conflict in another region – such as in Syria — can be difficult to understand.

“I don’t think people understand the severity [of it],” he said on the phone from Toronto.

He explained people tend to want to know, “Who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy?”

“It doesn’t fall neatly into the way us as humans want to understand it,” Morley said.

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But for UNICEF it doesn’t matter which side of a conflict people in need are on.

Morley visited a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq in June. It was built to host 22,000 people, but now has approximately 45,000 people living in it.

WATCH: Thousands more Syrian refugees cross border into Iraq

He said there isn’t a big difference between the families living there and the people in refugee camps in a natural disaster zone, such as in post-earthquake Haiti or in nutrition centres along the Somalia-Kenya border during the 2011 famine.

“They all want the same things. They want some stability for their families and they need some help to get there,” Morley said. “But, the overarching story is different and I do think…it makes people less likely to give.”

When it comes to helping the victims of war, he said a lot of people have the notion that it’s better to give once there is some semblance of peace.

Celebrity diplomacy

Matthews said another issue is the lack of prominent figures talking about Syria – not necessarily government officials, but celebrities.

“These celebrities do have something that the average person doesn’t, and they can actually bring the media attention to a certain issue,” he said. “Or they can sometimes force the government itself committing the atrocities to modify their behavior.”

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He referenced the work of actor/director George Clooney and the attention he brought to the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan.

“If Joe Schmo from Amnesty International said something, a government won’t care. But if someone who has 20 million followers on Twitter and who will go onto major TV networks…and talks about the suffering in Syria, that also kind of changes things.”