Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, Ursula Mueller - Briefing to the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria
New York, 19 September 2019
Mr. President, distinguished Council Members.
There have been several notable developments in Syria since the Under-Secretary-General briefed you three weeks ago about the humanitarian situation. I wanted to start today with an update about northwest Syria.
On 30 August, the Russian Federation announced a unilateral ceasefire in the Idleb ‘deescalation area’, which the Government of Syria later confirmed. Reports indicate a decline in fighting compared to the period since late April, when the military escalation began. It is critical that the much-needed respite for civilians continues, unimpeded humanitarian access be facilitated to all civilians in need, and the protected status of civilian infrastructure be respected.
Worrying signs of insecurity are, however, present. Ground forces have continued to exchange shelling in southern Idleb and eastern Latakia, and airstrikes were reported in central and northern Idleb over the past week. At the same time, the listed terrorist group Hayat Tahrir alSham and other non-State armed groups continue to harass, intimidate and coerce civilians, including medical workers.
The humanitarian situation, Mr. President, remains alarming. An estimated 400,000 people fled their homes in northwest Syria from May to August. Many of these people have been displaced multiple times, both prior to and during the current military escalation. These displacements follow familiar patterns, with civilians largely moving northward, away from conflict-affected areas, to already densely populated areas in northern Idleb.
In addition to the needs of those displaced, host communities are becoming increasingly strained, leading to additional demands on overstretched humanitarian assistance. Needs in these areas are considerable across all sectors: food and non-food, water and sanitation, health, education, and protection.
The shelter situation is of particular concern. Increased demand and short supply mean many families are unable to afford rents in urban areas. A survey earlier this month found that about 600,000 people live in tents, camps and sites for internally displaced persons. Humanitarian partners report that, in the absence of viable alternatives, families in some areas resort to living out in the open.
Following months of intensive fighting, the outlook in northwest Syria remains uncertain. We know, though, that winter is coming. Humanitarian organizations are already planning how to help people in need before temperatures drop and inclement weather arrives. Humanitarians estimate that an additional US$68.4 million is required to address expected winterization, shelter and non-food item needs. Continued donor support is essential to maintain the current humanitarian response, but also to scale up operations to meet the expected needs across northwest Syria in the months ahead.
Humanitarian efforts to assist civilians in need across northwest Syria depend on more than just financial support. As the Under-Secretary-General stressed last month, the people in Idleb are reached exclusively through the cross-border operation. On a monthly basis, more than 1.6 million people in need receive some form of assistance. The renewal of your resolution 2165 later this year is crucial to sustain the ongoing support to millions of people in need and to respond to further needs in the months ahead.
As you are aware, on 13 September, the Secretary-General announced the establishment of an internal, independent United Nations Headquarters Board of Inquiry to investigate a series of incidents that have occurred in northwest Syria. The Board will commence its work on 30 September to ascertain the facts of specific incidents of concern and report to the SecretaryGeneral about its conclusions. We stand ready to support the Board in its inquiry.
I have some developments to report about another intractable humanitarian situation in the Rubkan area. On 11 September, a team comprised of 20 UN staff and 170 staff and volunteers from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent completed a six-day mission to Rukban, delivering food and nutrition assistance for approximately 15,000 internally displaced persons. This joint mission was the second UN-SARC [Syrian Arab Red Crescent] convoy in 2019 to reach the remote area with humanitarian assistance.
This mission was not without difficulties. Access to people in the area depended on extensive coordination with community leaders, armed groups, and multiple Member States, including the Syrian Arab Republic, the Russian Federation, the United States and Jordan. Tensions on the ground were high. Moreover, the teams found that conditions have gradually deteriorated in the past months, with reports that several children have died of preventable causes.
The work to support people in Rukban is not over. UN-SARC teams are preparing for the next phase of their plan, which is to assist up to 6,000 people that expressed a wish to depart Rukban for areas under Government control. Such an operation depends on the continued cooperation of all parties to facilitate the UN-SARC teams in supporting the voluntary departure of civilians from Rukban, in a safe, well-informed and dignified manner. Relevant parties will also need to take further efforts to find solutions for the population staying in Rukban, in consultation with them.
And on a related note, I welcome the arrival of Mr. Imran Riza, the new UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, who presented his credentials to the Syrian Government on Monday.
We have frequently reported to the Council about the desperate situation in Al Hol camp. As of early September, some 68,600 individuals reside in the camp, 94 per cent of whom are women and children. Humanitarian organizations continue to seek ways to improve camp facilities, particularly in the water and sanitation conditions and availability of health care. Their efforts have contributed to a decrease in reported illnesses in recent weeks.
Negotiations continue with camp administrators to ensure sustained humanitarian access to civilians in need, particularly in the camp’s annex, where third country nationals are accommodated. If agreed, humanitarian organizations are prepared to provide around the clock health services, which currently are restricted to daylight hours.
Despite these efforts, the situation in Al Hol remains extremely challenging and seemingly without an imminent solution. Children comprise two-thirds of the camp population. Many of them have been exposed to extreme violence and trauma under ISIL. Insecurity and violence continue to be reported inside the camp. Many households face uncertainties about their future and remain concerned about the fate of missing male family members.
In this regard, solutions for foreign nationals need to be urgently found so as not to prolong their conditions. We call, yet again, on all Member States to take the measures necessary to ensure that their nationals are repatriated for rehabilitation and reintegration, or prosecution as appropriate, in line with international law and standards. Failure to do so now can place children at risk of future radicalization, which will only make future action more difficult.
Still in northeast Syria, in Deir-ez-Zor governorate, humanitarian actors are increasingly concerned about new access challenges. On 13 September, the Syrian Democratic Forces reportedly closed all crossing points to areas under the Government of Syria until further notice, forcing civilians to resort to more dangerous informal crossings and interfering in humanitarian operations.
Unimpeded humanitarian access remains essential to ensure the estimated 1.2 million people in need across northeast Syria have access to essential services and assistance.
I would like to take a step back from these urgent humanitarian situations, which we brief you about on a routine basis, to highlight two cross-cutting dynamics affecting civilians across Syria.
The first is food insecurity. Earlier this month, the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization reported greater harvests in Syria compared to last year. Wheat production, for instance, is estimated at 2.2 million tonnes, up from 1.2 million in 2018. Even if the overall production remains a fraction of pre-crisis levels, an improved agricultural outlook is hopeful news.
At the same time, families in Syria face even greater challenges in making ends meet. Food prices have gradually increased nationwide over the last 12-14 months, just as the value of their currency has gone down. Importantly, we know the most vulnerable families are the least able to cope with such pressures.
Such conditions only heighten the importance of ongoing efforts to support the more than 6.5 million people estimated to need food and livelihoods support. On a monthly basis, humanitarian organizations deliver food assistance to 4.4 million people in need. It is important to stress that this assistance is provided based on assessed needs: almost 75 per cent of this food assistance reaches districts identified with the most severe needs.
The second dynamic that I would like to highlight is the threat posed by unexploded ordnance. Civilians in Syria face a chronic danger, even in areas where fighting has subsided. More than 10 million people in Syria are estimated to live in contaminated areas.
Indeed, incidents have been recorded across Syria since the end of August. On 8 September, in Deir-ez-Zoir, an unexploded ordnance reportedly killed a man while he was checking his house in Abu Kamal district. Days earlier, in northern rural Aleppo, two separate landmine explosions reportedly caused multiple casualties. And on 1 September, a landmine reportedly injured 11 people, including five women and three children, in western rural Dara’a governorate.
The indiscriminate nature of unexploded ordnance makes them a shared challenge. I support standing calls for all parties to the conflict to allow clearance of unexploded ordnance, to safely conduct risk education efforts, and to ensure the respect and safety for humanitarian staff conducting the clearance activities.
I want to return to northwest Syria to conclude my briefing. In recent weeks, the fragile ceasefire has brought into focus an outlook that, for this Security Council, should be all too familiar: Further fighting will endanger and displace thousands of civilians.
Further displacement will create even more needs.
Further needs will stretch humanitarians that are already at their limit.
The world is watching, Mr. President, in hopes that a more humane outlook for Syria will be created, one where civilians are safe, needs are addressed, and humanitarians are protected.
Thank you, Mr. President.