Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, Ad Interim, Ramesh Rajasingham, Briefing to the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria, 27 August 2020

As delivered

Thank you, Mr. President.

Today, I will focus on five areas:

First, the COVID-19 outbreak and its impact on health services.

Second, the economic downturn.

Third, protection of civilians.

Fourth, humanitarian access, which is essential for our operations.

Fifth, what support humanitarian agencies have been delivering to people across Syria.

Mr. President, in his briefing to you last month, Under-Secretary-General Lowcock warned that the very limited COVID-19 testing in Syria masks the real extent of the outbreak.

Reports of healthcare facilities filling up, of rising numbers of death notices and burials, all seem to indicate that actual cases far exceed official figures.

What the official figures do show, is that community transmission is widespread. Of the 2,440 cases confirmed by the Syrian Ministry of Health, the majority cannot be traced to a known source.

Rising patient numbers are adding pressure to the fragile health system. Many are reluctant to seek care at medical facilities, leading to more severe complications when they do arrive. Health workers still lack sufficient personal protective equipment and associated supplies.

Several health facilities have suspended operations due to capacity issues and to staff contracting the virus. Some are in areas already among the most underserved when it comes to healthcare.

In Al Hol camp in north-east Syria, 12 health facilities had to suspend operations this month due to staff becoming infected, having to self-isolate, or due to lack of personal protective equipment. Both field hospitals at the camp have since resumed operations.

Sustained health services are critical at Al Hol, where the population is already considered highly vulnerable. Between 6 and 10 August, eight children under the age of five died in the camp, from a range of conditions.

I join the Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, Imran Riza, in expressing alarm over these deaths and in his assertion that no child should be forced to live under the challenging and potentially dangerous conditions at Al Hol camp.

Of the 65,000 people residing at Al Hol, the majority, 35,000 children, are under five years of age.

WHO is leading an inter-agency technical mission to Al Hol this week to look at how health coverage at the camp can be improved despite the immense challenges posed by COVID-19 and by the severe staffing and supply shortages that pre-date the pandemic.

Al Hol has also been affected by renewed disruptions in water supply from the Alouk water station over the past month.

Water supply from Alouk was interrupted at least 13 times this year, impacting some 460,000 civilians in Al-Hasakeh governorate.

On 22 August power supply from the Tishrin Dam resumed to the Mabrouka and Derbasieh electricity stations, after which nine out of 34 boreholes at Alouk started producing water. Technical teams were able to carry out essential repairs at the station on 25 August.

Due to the low pumping capacity and a further disruption on 25 August, water has yet to reach AlHasakeh.

In response to the water shortages, humanitarian partners have been delivering an estimated 2,500 m3 of water to the area per day. But this is neither a sufficient nor a sustainable solution.

I emphasize that parties to the conflict are obliged under international humanitarian law to not render useless objects, such as water installations, that are indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.

Mr. President, my second point is the humanitarian impact of the economic downturn.

The Syrian Pound has stabilized since falling to its lowest ever recorded informal rate in June.

This has also reduced food inflation. Food prices are still rising, but they are doing so at a much slower rate: The average price of WFP’s national reference food basket increased by three per cent from June to July, after surging 48 per cent from May to June.

These are still unprecedented levels: current food prices are more than twice the level of the previous price surge at the height of the crisis in 2016.

One of the impacts of COVID-19 in Syria has been a disruption in some commercial supply chains. Commercial supply chains may also be impacted, to varying degrees, by the explosion at the port of Beirut.

Let me join the Secretary-General in his condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims of this horrific event, and in wishing a full recovery to the many thousands of injured; many of them Syrian refugees who have been so generously hosted by the Lebanese people.

Mr. President, my third point is the protection of civilians.

The ceasefire in the north-west is largely holding, but it will hardly seem that way for civilians in frontline areas.

Hostilities in the north-west have been increasing in July and August, with increased levels of shelling reported by local sources in the frontline areas of southern Idleb, northern Lattakia, northern Hama and western Aleppo governorates.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recorded at least 10 civilian deaths, including three children, as a result of ground strikes and air strikes in the “de-escalation area” in June and July. Another 30 civilians, including ten children, were injured during this period.

I recall that under international humanitarian law, all parties to armed conflict must take constant care to spare civilians.

The contamination of large parts of Syria by explosive hazards adds to the appalling human cost of the active fighting. Each month we see a steady stream of civilian casualties; often these are children killed or injured while playing or picking through rubble.

On 12 August, a group of around 70 people, including families with children, walked into an area contaminated with explosive remnants in the area of Nobbol and Zahraa in northern rural Aleppo. They triggered explosions that, in turn, drew fire from armed actors in the area.

While some bodies of the victims have been recovered, it is unclear how many were killed.

The group were travelling with local smugglers – a market that has been boosted by the economic downturn and deteriorating security situation in the south, alongside other factors that are pushing increasingly desperate families to take extreme risks.

Mr. President, my next point is on access.

A UN humanitarian delivery to northern rural Aleppo was dispatched via the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on 28 July. This was the first such delivery since the adoption of resolution 2533.

The convoy took 11 hours to reach its destination, al-Bab, after multiple delays, caused by a lack of approvals from various parties, as well as poor road conditions. Travel time to al-Bab from the Bab al-Salam crossing would have been approximately two hours.

A subsequent delivery on 21 August was also delayed.

As the Secretary-General notes in his latest report on Syria, which you received last week: these challenges were foreseen, and have resulted in a more costly, higher risk, less timely and, ultimately, less effective humanitarian response.

UN agencies are working to mitigate the impact of the reduction to one authorized border crossing.

The capacity of the remaining authorized crossing at Bab al-Hawa needs to be expanded; as does the capacity of crossing points inside Syria. Significant roadworks will need to be completed before the onset of winter weather.

Engagement is also underway with parties on the ground to ensure humanitarian deliveries can cross between Idleb and northern Aleppo unimpeded.

From within Syria, a UN inter-agency mission reached Khan Shykhun and Big Khwein in southern rural Idleb on 28 July. These areas were retaken by Government forces one year ago. The mission found civilian infrastructure severely damaged and basic services lacking. Fewer than 300 families have returned. Work is underway to develop a response plan based on the needs identified by the mission.

Now turning to Rukban, the humanitarian operation has remained without access to the 12,000 people at the camp since September 2019.

Only a few local truck drivers have been able to sporadically deliver basic goods through informal routes and there remains no access to medical services at the camp. The humanitarian situation has significantly worsened as a result.

Another 576 people have left Rukban since March. Support is needed from all parties to help those who still want to leave. Sustainable solutions need to be found for all those who remain.

Crucially, humanitarian actors must be granted access to the camp to deliver life-saving assistance for civilians in need.

Mr. President, let me close with an update on the assistance we are providing to the civilian population throughout Syria.

In the first half of the year, humanitarian operations have reached an average of 7.2 million people across the country each month.

More than 12 million medical procedures have been conducted, and 5.4 million treatment courses provided.

Some 3 million people have been reached with protection support, such as child protection services, support services related to gender-based violence, and mine action support.

Food assistance has reached 5.4 million people on average each month and, as of July, is being expanded to reach vulnerable people in COVID-19 quarantine centres.

This assistance is all the more critical as food insecurity continues to rise in Syria. It must be sustained.

In his briefing to you last month, Under-Secretary-General Lowcock highlighted the generous pledges made at the Brussels IV Conference in June. Without these contributions, we would be unable to help people throughout Syria. I join him in urging other donors to contribute and more fairly share the financial burden.

Thank you, Mr. President.


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