Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, Ursula Mueller - Briefing to the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria, 19 December 2019

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Madam President, distinguished Council Members.

With the end of 2019 approaching, I am afraid that the humanitarian situation for people in many parts of Syria is worse than when the year began. The Secretary-General’s latest report updates about many concerning developments.

I would like to touch on a few of these developments today, but also highlight humanitarians’ ongoing efforts to assist people in need. I will speak to the continued importance of cross-border humanitarian operations. I will conclude by highlighting several trends that may increasingly shape the humanitarian outlook in Syria during the year ahead.

In northwest Syria, to begin, the situation remains alarming. Syrian government forces and their allies continue to shell and conduct airstrikes on areas under the control of non-state armed groups, including listed terrorist entities, in Idleb and Aleppo. Non-state armed groups, for their part, have escalated attacks against areas controlled by Government forces in southern Idleb and Aleppo.

Civilians on both sides of the frontline suffer the consequences. On 20 November, OHCHR reported, a missile reportedly fired from government-held territory hit the Qah camp in Idleb. At least 16 were allegedly killed and 30 more injured. The following day, on 21 November, groundbased attacks on several neighborhoods of government-held Aleppo City reportedly killed seven civilians and injured 29 others. Some 23 civilians reportedly killed in little more than 24 hours, with many more wounded.

Medical personnel and facilities have also suffered. OHCHR confirmed that, on 4 and 6 November, a total of four separate health facilities in Idleb were affected by hostilities. At least three medical personnel were reported injured, and medical activities were interrupted. At the same time, the listed terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham continues to harass and intimidate health service providers and other civilians in areas under its control.

Across northwest Syria, civilians live the consequences of this continued violence. Humanitarian networks report that hostilities have displaced up to 60,000 people in Idleb in recent weeks. Rain, cold and winter conditions have compounded hardship for many displaced families and their host communities. At the same time, the price of fuel – required for heating – remains above the national average, due to a supply shortage and inflation linked to the depreciation of the Syrian pound on the informal market. Earlier this month, OCHA received reports of families in Idleb burning tires, old clothes, and other household items to stay warm.

Humanitarian organizations are doing everything possible to assist the most vulnerable. Partners continue to provide food assistance to newly displaced households, increase health services in areas that are receiving an influx of IDPs, and provide emergency protection services. In recent months, WFP has increased the number of people to be assisted via its cross-border modalities to over 1 million people per month. Tens of thousands received supplies, services and support, such as education materials, non-food items, clean water, shelter, emergency nutrition, and winter supplies.

By some measures, the intensity of hostilities remains below levels seen in the middle of the year, when fighting was most acute in northern Hama and southern Idleb. Nonetheless, the impact of current hostilities in northwest Syria remains concerning. As the Secretary-General continues to warn, “A full-scale military offensive would result in a devastating humanitarian cost for the 3 million people living in the area. It must be avoided.” In this context, the internal United Nations Headquarters Board of Inquiry established by the Secretary-General continues its work to investigate a series of incidents that have occurred in northwest Syria since September 2018, causing damage or destruction to civilian facilities.

Madam President,

In northeast Syria, the humanitarian situation remains serious, even as hostilities have decreased in recent weeks. After Turkey and allied non-state armed groups launched ‘Operation Peace Spring’ in the area between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn in Syria on 9 October, over 200,000 people fled the area. As of 26 November, 123,000 people had returned to their areas of origin. More than 70,000 people remain displaced from Hasakah, Raqqah and Aleppo governorates. Nearly 17,000 people have fled into Iraq.

Humanitarian organizations have mounted a significant response to assist hundreds of thousands of people affected by hostilities in the northeast. As the Secretary-General notes, humanitarian organizations in the area have been very adaptive to ensure the necessary assistance reaches those most in need. With some 1.8 million people in need in northeast Syria, the task is considerable.

Rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access remains essential for all facets of the ongoing humanitarian response in the northeast. Assessments must be facilitated to identify the most pressing needs and vulnerable populations. Supply lines via the M4 highway and various border crossings must remain open for humanitarian cargo. The delivery of humanitarian assistance must be allowed without interference by the parties. Finally, monitoring missions must be allowed in order to confirm needs are being met. We expect all parties to the conflict to facilitate a sustained and scaled-up coordinated response.

The situation in Al Hol camp also requires a dedicated and urgent response. As noted in the Secretary-General’s report, some 68,400 people remain in the camp, 94 per cent of whom are women and children. I join OHCHR in urging governments to immediately take back their nationals who are most vulnerable. Many of these individuals, including orphans and unaccompanied children, may require further assistance given potential abuse and trauma.

Ultimately, though, their best chance to have a better future is for their governments to respond.

Madam President,

As the Under-Secretary-General stressed in his briefing last month, the humanitarian situation in northwest and northeast Syria would be markedly worse without the cross-border operation. The aid provided through the modalities set out in your resolutions have staved off an even larger humanitarian crisis inside Syria.

Without the cross-border operation, we would see an immediate end of aid supporting millions of civilians. That would cause a rapid increase in hunger and disease, resulting in death, suffering and further displacement—including across-borders—for a vulnerable population who have already suffered unspeakable tragedy as a result of almost nine years of conflict.

As the Secretary-General notes in his latest report, he counts on “Security Council members to ensure the United Nations is authorized to meet the needs of all who need humanitarian assistance, including by the swift renewal of the modalities set out in its resolution 2165 (2014) and subsequent resolutions.” The Emergency Relief Coordinator made clear the position of the United Nations on the importance of maintaining all four border crossings, as well as including Tell Abiyad, in a letter to Council Members yesterday. Your timely renewal of the cross-border resolution is vital to ensure lifesaving work in Syria continues.

Madam President,

In Rukban, efforts continue to assist the remaining population until durable solutions can be found for them. Despite repeated efforts, the United Nations and Syrian Arab Red Crescent have been unable to return to the area since September to support voluntary departures to shelters in government-controlled areas. Efforts continue to secure the necessary agreements from all parties for a humanitarian mission to proceed in a safe manner. We remain hopeful that it will proceed in the weeks ahead.
Many Rukban residents express their desire to leave the area. At least 640 people have left the camp for areas under the Syrian government through their own means since the last UN/SARC mission. Others are expected to follow. Financial constraints, however, prevent others from being able to leave the camp without support.

In the meantime, I am encouraged that, earlier this month, the Syrian Government permitted the United Nations to conduct monitoring missions to the two shelters in Homs where people from Rukban pass through. We hope such access will continue in the weeks to come.

Across the country, I urge all parties – States and armed groups – to spare civilians and civilian infrastructure and to facilitate humanitarian activities without hindrance. For humanitarian reasons and as a matter of international humanitarian law, human suffering must be minimized.

Madam President,

Before the Security Council concludes its work for the year, I would like to draw your attention to several trends that may become more significant in 2020 for civilians living through the Syria crisis.

Three deserve special consideration:

First, the scale of humanitarian needs in Syria will remain vast. As you will have seen in the Global Humanitarian Overview 2020, which was released earlier this month, current estimates project that some 11 million people in Syria will need regular humanitarian assistance. Five million of these are in ‘acute’ need of assistance. The UN estimates that the overall financial requirements for the humanitarian response in 2020 will be similar to the $3.3 billion dollars requested in 2019.

Moreover, across the region, some 5.6 million Syrian refugees need assistance, more than 70 per cent of whom live in poverty. The current plan to assist this refugee population and their host communities remains considerable, with projected costs of $5.2 billion dollars.

Financial support for both the response in Syria and the wider region remains vital. I am pleased to confirm that, earlier this month, the Under-Secretary-General selected Syria to receive a provisional allocation of $25 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF)
Underfunded Emergencies window. These funds will be used to support the most critical collective priorities within the Humanitarian Response Plan.

Much more support is required to sustain humanitarian operations in Syria and neighboring countries. We will count on donors’ generosity during the year ahead to help humanitarians reach more people in need with the most appropriate and effective assistance.

Second, the economic situation across Syria stands to compound humanitarian needs. Syria’s currency has lost half of its value this year. The factors behind recent economic shocks may be debated, but basic indicators present a concerning economic outlook for civilians in Syria: the cost of living grows, income stagnates, and currency loses value.

We know the most vulnerable populations are the ones least able to afford the increasing cost of living. Communities struggle to respond to sudden emergencies if they are just getting by.
Families will adopt more extreme measures to cope with chronic hardship.

Humanitarian organizations will seek more ways to ensure the poorest and those on the brink of poverty do not slip into an even worse state. We need to ensure the life and dignity of those in need, including by finding new ways to restore essential and lifesaving services.

Third, and finally, insecurity continues to endanger civilians across much of Syria, including areas away from frontlines. Earlier this month, for example, OHCHR warned about the increasing number of incidents in north Syria involving improvised explosive devices in marketplaces, residential neighborhoods and other populated areas. Some 49 incidents have been verified since late October, 43 of which were in areas under the control of Turkish forces and affiliated non-state armed groups. At least 78 civilians were killed, and more than 300 persons were injured in these incidents.

Similarly, in southwest Syria, civilians face persistent risks amid continued violence. OHCHR has recorded growing instances of detentions, improvised explosive attacks and assassination attempts against both pro-Government and former opposition-linked individuals.

Such patterns of violence pose considerable risks to civilians and their efforts to pursue a safe and dignified life.

Madam President,

As the final scheduled briefing on Syria for this year, I would like to close with a genuine wish that the year ahead is a better one for the people of Syria.

Thank you, Madam President

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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