Syria (Humanitarian Situation) - Security Council VTC

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29-Mar-2021 02:45:28
As hunger, malnutrition rise in Syria, Security Council must ensure border crossing remains open, aid flows to millions, Humanitarian Affairs chief stresses.

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A full decade into the conflict which plunged Syria into a spiral of grotesque violence, hunger and economic decay, the Security Council must stand firm in defence of the country’s last authorized border crossing, through which aid to millions of civilians flows each month, the United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator told members during a high-level video conference meeting today.

Mark Lowcock, who is also Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said that, after a “decade of death, destruction, displacement, disease, dread and despair”, there is still no respite in sight for ordinary Syrians. Some 13.4 million people across the country continue to require humanitarian aid, 20 per cent more than in 2020. The deep economic decay from a decade of war has deepened over the last year, not least as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s currency, the Syrian pound, fell to its lowest value ever against the United States dollar in March, and hunger and malnutrition are rising rapidly as a result as food prices spike.

Meanwhile, he said, at least 30 communities in northern Syria were attacked by artillery shells and air strikes in the last week alone, forcing the evacuation and closure of Al Atareb Surgical Hospital and killing several young patients. The location of the hospital was well known to the warring parties, and was shared as recently as 1 March. “This was obviously a deliberate attack, and you will all have seen the statement the Secretary-General issued,” he stressed, also sounding alarm over the death of an off-duty staff member of the non-governmental organization Médecins Sans Frontières at Al-Hol camp on 24 February. Insecurity at Al-Hol has now reached intolerable levels, with 41 residents murdered since the beginning of 2021.

Pointing out that the de-facto authorities in the north-east are responsible for providing security in Al-Hol, he said a major security operation involving large numbers of military personnel began there on 28 March, with the stated intention of restoring security in the camp. The exercise forced the suspension of many humanitarian services. Security must be provided in a manner that does not endanger the camp’s residents, including some 40,000 foreign and Syrian children, he stressed, describing it as unacceptable that they remain in such an unsafe environment. “Countries of origin should take their nationals home,” he stressed.

Turning to humanitarian access, he recalled that multiple air-to-surface missiles on 21 March hit the road leading to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in Idlib Governorate — through which some 1,000 trucks full of United Nations assistance pass each month, as authorized by the Security Council under resolution 2533 (2020). One of the missiles struck a lot where trucks used for transporting humanitarian supplies were parked, and 24 trucks were destroyed or damaged. The air strikes also started a fire in a nearby warehouse storing food and other humanitarian supplies. A quarter of the stocks, amounting to aid for over 4,000 people, were destroyed.

Outlining the extent to which the Syrian people depend upon United Nations humanitarian support, he said 75 per cent of the 4 million people in the country’s north-west region depend upon the Organization to meet their basic needs. The cross-border operation reaches almost 85 per cent of those people every month. Meanwhile, many non-governmental partners rely on the United Nations for support in logistics, financing and procurement. The cross-border operation is one of the most heavily scrutinized and monitored aid mechanisms in the world, due in large part to the fact that those paying for its — mostly Western and Gulf region donors — have made it clear that they will only do so if they are sure the resources are not being diverted to terrorist groups. “We know aid gets to the people it is supposed to,” he said.

Recounting efforts over the last year to seek agreement on cross-line aid deliveries to the north-west, he said that, while the various parties have each recently described arrangements that they could go along with they have not been able to identify an approach on which all can agree. “While we deliver 1,000 trucks a month of aid cross border into the north-west, we have yet to see even a single truck just once cross [the] line,” he said. Turning to the situation in the north-east, he said cross-line aid has scaled up there but needs still surpass the ability to address them. An estimated 1.8 million people require assistance in areas of north-east Syria outside of the control of the Government, with over 70 per cent of those considered to be in extreme need.

Even as humanitarian groups work to bridge those gaps, he cited warnings from the World Health Organization (WHO) that funding remains a key constraint. Available resources will only cover 40 per cent of estimated health supply needs for north-east Syria in 2021. On 30 March the United Nations will co-host the fifth Brussels conference, requesting an estimated $4.2 billion for the response inside Syria and another $5.8 billion to support countries hosting Syrian refugees in the region. “Now is not the moment to reduce humanitarian aid to Syria,” he stressed, noting that the ability to deliver aid and stave off an even worse humanitarian crisis will depend upon the political will and generosity of the international community.

Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said 2021 marks 10 years since the start of the Syrian crisis, “an anniversary no one wanted to see”. Homes, hospitals, schools and water systems have been destroyed, and economic crisis has plunged 90 per cent of the population into poverty, millions are internally displaced or have fled the country and humanitarian law continues to be flouted with impunity. “Tragedy upon tragedy for a once-beautiful country, rendered unrecognizable today, and for a generation of children growing up knowing nothing but war,” she said.

Emphasizing that nearly 90 per cent of children across Syria require humanitarian assistance and that 3.2 million young people there and in neighbouring countries are out of school, she warned that they are also vulnerable to violence, exploitation, early marriage, child labour or recruitment into armed groups. The number of families reporting that their children were suffering from psychological distress has doubled in the last year and the deepening economic turmoil is placing adequate nutrition out of reach for millions of families.

She noted that, in north-west Syria, acute malnutrition is approaching the emergency threshold of 15 per cent among displaced children and in hard-to-reach areas and camps. Half a million stunted children across Syria are being robbed of their full potential from a very early age, as they will never be able to grow healthy brains or strong bodies. Spotlighting the conditions of children in the Al-Hol and Al-Roj camps, as well as the Rukban camp and in detention centres and prisons, in particular, she added that nearly 48,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported across the country and that only limited testing is available.

Meanwhile, she said, the war’s ripple effect on Syria’s neighbours — including Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey — is affecting host and refugee communities alike, straining economies, services, patience and generosity. Along with its partners, UNICEF is providing health care on the ground, including 900,000 routine vaccinations for children in 2020. It also provides psychosocial support, education, water, cash assistance, information on how people can stay safe during COVID-19 and equitable access to vaccines. Noting that the 30 March donor conference in Brussels will be a chance for partners to renew their support in key areas, she cited the need for regular humanitarian access, emphasizing that needs are multiplying. The last year has seen a 20 per cent increase in the number of people requiring humanitarian aid in the north-west.

Emphasizing that the Council cannot turn its back on 3.4 million people, including 1.7 million children, she declared: “This aid is the only lifeline they have.” Members must renew the resolution on cross-border assistance and spare no effort to reach an agreement on accessing children through cross-line operations. All parties should immediately stop attacks on children, hospitals, schools and other vital civilian infrastructure. Syrian children in Al-Hol and Al-Roj should be reintegrated into their local communities, while third-country nationals should be repatriated safely back to their countries of origin. Adding her voice to broader calls for peace, she said UNICEF will remain on the ground supporting the Syrian children until that is achieved. “We call on this Council to not only keep their hope alive, but match it with the solutions and support they need and the lasting peace they deserve,” she concluded.

Also briefing the Council today was Amani Ballour, Founder of the non‑governmental Al Amar Fund, who said she was speaking not only as a paediatrician from Damascus, but as a Syrian who cares deeply about her country. Describing Syria as a broken nation after a decade of conflict, she recalled her experience working in an underground hospital in Eastern Ghouta for nearly six years, the last two of them as its manager. The worst incident occurred in 2013 when scores of women and children died right before her eyes following a sarin gas attack. Even after that horrific crimes, attacks on hospitals and the use of chemical weapons have continued, with no real accountability, she said.

She spelled out the impact of the conflict on Syria’s children, including hunger, malnutrition and mental‑health issues. Many children born during the siege of Al Ghouta suffer from depression, personality disorders, insomnia and paranoia. She also recalled that her hospital was targeted by an air strike in 2015, not long after the Russian Federation began to step up its support to the Syrian military. That attack killed three of the hospital’s staff. Just last week, the Al Atareb Hospital near Aleppo was hit by artillery strikes, leaving seven civilians dead, including two children, and five medical staff injured. That incident must be investigated, she said, emphasizing that an end to such attacks will be achieved only through real accountability.

Turning to humanitarian access, she said that cross-border assistance is vital for the 4 million civilians living in north-west Syria. It is also important for the nationwide distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. On the other hand, cross-line assistance has been a failed experiment, she said, adding that, during her time in Al Ghouta, the hospital lacked even basic medical supplies. Approvals from the regime were rarely approved, and when they were, soldiers would remove baby formula from trucks and dump it on the ground. “You cannot allow this situation to return,” she said, calling for the renewal of cross-border assistance through Bab al-Hawa and the opening of additional crossing points to meet growing needs.

Against that backdrop, she urged the Council to set aside its differences, refocus efforts on reaching a political solution, act with great urgency to address the worsening humanitarian crisis and hold accountable those who attack medical facilities and use chemical weapons. “I also urged you to move past words to concrete actions,” she said, challenging Council members and Member States to take immediate steps to help Syria’s people, increase their financial contributions to the United Nations and its partners, and agree to settle more Syrian refugees. Only through solidarity and shared humanity can the suffering of the Syrian people be alleviated and progress made towards justice, peace and reconciliation, she said.

As Council members took the floor, many voiced frustration over the parties’ inability to agree on the best course of action for delivering critical support amid Syria’s rapidly mounting humanitarian needs. While several speakers called unequivocally for the prompt reauthorization of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing — and some went further, asking the Council to reopen two additional crossings that were closed in recent years — others strongly disagreed, citing deep concerns over violations of Syria’s sovereignty. Members continued to diverge sharply on the utility of those crossing points and whether cross-border aid or cross-line aid, delivered internally from Damascus, is more effective at tackling the population’s urgent needs.

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