Middle East (Syria-Humanitarian Briefing) - Security Council Open VTC

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29-Jun-2020 02:13:26
With deteriorating economy, record-level food insecurity, Syria's people at ‘a breaking point’, humanitarian chief tells Security Council.

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Experts briefing the Security Council during a 29 June video conference meeting warned that cases of COVID-19 are likely to spread “like wildfire” amid Syria’s displaced millions — already suffering from hunger, spiking food prices and a health system decimated by war — while urging members to promptly renew the country’s crucial cross-border aid mechanism amid the pandemic.

Cross-border operations were first authorized under Council resolution 2165 (2014) to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to populations in need. However, the mechanism’s renewal has since become a point of divergence among the Council’s 15 members, who voted in January to renew two of its crossing points and close two others. That mandate, as laid out in resolution 2504 (2020), is slated to expire on 10 July.

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Humanitarian Relief Coordinator, said that, to date, the Government of Syria has confirmed 256 cases of COVID-19, including 9 deaths — a more than four‑fold increase since his last briefing. While that number is low, he warned that testing remains extremely limited. “We can see from what has recently been happening elsewhere in the region […] the scale of the risks ahead,” he said, adding that one need only look to Yemen to see how quickly COVID-19 can collapse a health system devastated by years of war.

While the United Nations is working to bolster preparedness and response measures, he said significant gaps remain. Syria’s health system is not prepared for a large-scale outbreak. The country also faces a serious economic downturn, with the soaring prices of imported food, fuel and other critical items. Citing a 78 per cent devaluation of the Syrian pound, he said food prices have spiked and a growing number of Syrians are going into debt or eating less in order to survive. Some 9.3 million people are now food insecure, the highest level ever recorded in Syria and growing. “Across the country, people who have struggled through nine years of conflict are now telling us they are at a breaking point,” he said.

Against that backdrop, he welcomed the commitment by States to apply humanitarian exemptions to sanctions they had previously imposed on Syria, while echoing the Secretary-General’s appeal to waive any measures that could undermine the country’s ability to combat the coronavirus. He noted public assurances by the United States and the European Union that their Syria sanctions programmes neither ban the flow of humanitarian supplies, nor target medicines and medical devices. In Syria’s north-west, 8.2 million people rely on humanitarian assistance, following massive displacement earlier in 2020.

Outlining strides and challenges in the delivery of humanitarian aid, he said the cross-border aid deliveries reauthorized by resolution 2504 (2020) facilitated the crossing of 1,781 trucks from Turkey into Syria in May. However, those efforts remain insufficient. Mothers arriving at nutrition centres report being priced out of food staples and medicines, leaving them solely reliant on food delivered across the border. Some are so desperate they are cooking weeds to survive. Calling for a scale-up of the cross-border operation, he warned that any efforts to further cut it would only cause more suffering and death.

Turning to cross-line assistance in Syria’s north-west region — which arrives from inside Syria, instead of across borders — he said that mechanism is still unable to match what is achieved through the cross-border operation. However, efforts have resumed to plan a cross-line operation into Idlib following its suspension in April due to COVID-19 concerns. The Secretary-General’s recent reports note that continued cross-border operations require a renewal of the authorizations for the Bab al-Salaam and Bab al-Hawa border crossings for an additional 12 months, he said, stressing that both crossings remain essential.

Meanwhile, he said, United Nations humanitarian operations reached more than 5.5 million people in Syria in the first four months of 2020. Their deliveries include food assistance for 3.2 million people, nutrition support for half a million children and water and sanitation for 1.3 million people, as well as millions of medical procedures and treatment courses. Humanitarian cash assistance has been scaled up amid the pandemic, with $40 million distributed so far through cash and vouchers provided to the most vulnerable.

Turning to the situation in the north-east, he said the World Health Organization (WHO) has dispatched two shipments of aid overland in addition to those sent by air. However, more than five months after the closure of the Al‑Yarubiya crossing along the Iraq border, medical items have not reached the majority of facilities that previously depended on cross-border supplies. A combination of both cross-border and cross-line aid is needed, he said, adding that the Council will also need to authorize additional crossings if adequate steps for cross-line deliveries are not taken.

Recalling the Russian Federation’s recent announcement that it will end its participation in the United Nations humanitarian notification system — or “deconfliction mechanism”, used to share information to protect humanitarian workers and medical facilities — he emphasized that all parties remain bound by international law regardless of whether or not they take part in the system. He concluded by reiterating his call for a renewal of resolution 2504 (2020), stressing that it provides a lifeline to millions who cannot otherwise be reached.

Susannah Sirkin, Director of Policy and Senior Adviser, Physicians for Human Rights, said COVID-19 presents an “urgent call to conscience” for the Council and the international community. Her organization has been documenting and reporting on human rights violations in Syria, including attacks on health workers, for nine years. Stressing that today’s humanitarian crisis is inextricably linked to the Government’s behaviour over the course of the conflict, she said that, while all parties have committed violations, the Government’s deliberate destruction of health facilities, targeting of health professionals and forcible displacement of millions of civilians “have no parallel”.

“When you kill a doctor, you attack her patients, and when you bomb a health clinic, you terrorize a community,” she said, adding that such breaking of people’s spirits by crushing their health care has been part of the Government’s strategy. Noting that her group has recorded 595 attacks on more than 350 health facilities — constituting crimes against humanity — she expressed concern that that number will continue to rise given the fragility of the ceasefire and recent spikes in violence.

“Much has changed in our world in the past year, but the core behaviour of the parties to the conflict has not,” she said, adding that Syria and the Russian Federation continue to flout international norms with impunity. While COVID-19 has strained even the world’s strongest health-care systems, Syria’s are particularly frail, and a virus outbreak would be catastrophic. “It is only a matter of time before coronavirus finds its way into the internally displaced persons camps and dense population centres of this region,” she said. Needs remain overwhelming, while overcrowding, malnutrition and persistent resource gaps make it likely that the virus will spread like wildfire.

Turning to the north-east, she described shocking shortages of medical supplies in an area hosting 2 million people. Gaps have grown more severe since the Council removed the Al-Yarubiyah crossing along the Iraq border, and cross‑line aid has not compensated for its loss. “For the Council to expect a Government responsible for […] one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time to turn around and facilitate access to aid in good faith is an exercise in self‑delusion,” she stressed, warning of an impending health-care system collapse. The Council knows it can — and should — do more to enable aid delivery, she said, calling for a renewal of the cross-border mechanism for a minimum of 12 months and the reauthorization of the Al-Yarubiyah crossing. “The Council must not bargain with the lives and health of Syrians,” she stressed.

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