BRIEFING TO THE SECURITY COUNCIL ON THE HUMANITARIAN SITUATION IN SYRIA
New York, 26 February 2019
Mr. President, distinguished Council members,
I provide this update today on behalf of the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mr. Mark Lowcock.
A fortnight ago, we got a glimpse of what life is like for some 41,000 displaced Syrians – mainly women and children – in Rukban, near the Syria-Jordan border. What our colleagues witnessed is a dire humanitarian situation: people struggling for survival, facing hunger and lacking the most basic necessities.
The convoy earlier this month was the largest and one of the most complex carried out by the United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent since the crisis began, nearly eight years ago.
The mission lasted ten days and involved 133 trucks loaded with essential humanitarian assistance,vaccines and logistical items. The assistance delivered was critical and will save lives. But the gravity of the situation for civilians in Rukban means that sustained humanitarian access is needed moving forward. Food supplies, for example, are expected to last only 30 days.
While the primary objective of this latest convoy was to provide immediate humanitarian assistance, teams also carried out intention surveys to inform discussions on possible durable solutions. An overwhelming majority of those surveyed, some 95 per cent of people, expressed their wish to leave the camp, with 83 per cent wanting to return to their areas of origin. However, all consulted people, regardless of their profile/tribal affiliation have ongoing concerns related to the situation at destination, the lack of civil documentation, concerns about access to their property and concerns related to their safety and security, particularly the fear of detention and of military conscription, and requested information and guarantees on all these issues.
On 16 February, a statement was released by the “Joint Coordination Committees on the repatriation of Syrian refugees of the Russian Federation and the Syrian Arab Republic” regarding the opening of humanitarian corridors from Rukban settlement. The UN has not been involved in the opening of these humanitarian corridors beyond providing supplies to SARC for immediate assistance to those who decided to leave through the evacuation corridors.
The UN welcomes all efforts to ease the suffering of people stranded at Rukban and to identify durable solutions. These efforts, however, need to ensure that any return or relocation is voluntary, safe, dignified and well-informed, and abides by core protection standards in line with international humanitarian and human rights law. Dialogue is ongoing with communities in Rukban, the Russian Federation, the Syrian authorities and others to ensure that this will be the case in any relocation process.
The UN remains extremely concerned for the protection of civilians who remain in the last ISILheld areas in south-eastern Deir-ez-Zor Governorate, and for those who were able to flee the fighting. Since late last year, over 37,000 people fled from Hajin to the Al Hol camp in Hassakeh Governorate, some 300 kilometres north of Hajin. Close to three-quarters of the total population of the Al-Hol camp is now made up of women and children under the age of five. Thousands of additional people are expected to arrive at Al-Hol camp in the coming days and weeks.
Extremely harsh conditions are reported along the route north, including cold temperatures and a lack of food, water, shelter and health services. At least 75 people, two-thirds of them children under the age of one, have died since December 2018, either while in transit or shortly after arriving in the Al Hol camp, mostly due to exposure and a lack of access to healthcare, while making the arduous journey northwards.
Response efforts are being scaled up in Al Hol camp, but also in Hajin and surrounding areas, despite considerable security challenges. For example, on 15 February, a SARC convoy with six trucks loaded with UN and Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement supplies reached Hajin town and distributed aid to some 5,000 people. Late last week, the UN and partners also completed food distributions in 15 towns and informal settlements in the eastern part of Deir ez-Zor Governorate.
In addition, the UN has established a transit centre in Suar town, midway between Hajin and Al Hol to receive people during the transit journey. However, the screening sites just outside of Hajin still remain inaccessible to humanitarian organizations. Moreover, protection concerns for the displaced include constraints on freedom of movement, with many of those arriving at Al Hol expressing a preference to move to other locations, in most cases to connect with family members or friends in Deir ez-Zor governorate.
Across northwestern Syria, an estimated 2.7 million men, women and children remain in need of humanitarian assistance. Some 40 per cent of children are out of school, while 2 million residents rely on water trucking for most if not all their clean water. Each month, some 1.7 million Syrians are reached with critical assistance through cross-border operations out of Turkey. Ensuring sustained humanitarian access is therefore critical.
To date, the recent expansion of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham [HTS] areas of influence has not been reported to have resulted in a significant change in levels of humanitarian access. The UN and partners are closely monitoring the situation to ensure that independent, neutral and impartial humanitarian action is respected. A number of measures are in place to mitigate risks of diversion or interference with aid operations, including screening and vetting of implementing partners; monitoring of distributions; commodity tracking systems; facilitating regular feedback from affected communities; and maintaining engagement with all parties to the conflict, to address operational challenges as they arise.
We have frequently reported to this Council about the plight of civilians in Idleb and surrounding areas in northwest Syria, who simply have nowhere else to flee should there be a full-scale military incursion into the area. While the September agreement of last year between Turkey and Russia to establish a demilitarized zone staved off an immediate military escalation, the last few weeks witnessed an increase in fighting, with dozens of civilians reportedly killed and dozens injured.
Up to 36,000 people are reported to have been displaced due to intensified shelling, many of them having moved northwards and are now residing in camps on the border with Turkey. As stated last week by the High Commissioner for Human Rights – quote – “Large numbers of civilians, including hundreds of thousands of displaced people, in Idlib and northern Aleppo are living an intolerable existence. They are trapped between the escalation of hostilities and bombardment on the one hand, and, on the other, are forced to live under the extremist rule of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other extremist fighters who regularly carry out targeted killings, abductions and arbitrary detention” – end of quote. I reiterate today that the risk of military escalation, and of potentially catastrophic humanitarian consequences, persists. It is therefore critical to sustain and fully implement the Russia-Turkey agreement of 17 September 2018.
Staggering levels of humanitarian need persist throughout Syria. This year, an estimated 11.7 million people will require humanitarian assistance across the country. The UN and its partners reach millions each month with life-saving humanitarian assistance across Syria. This is only possibly thanks to the generous support of international donors. More than $5 billion was contributed against the Humanitarian Response Plan and the Syria Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan in 2018 – a huge amount of money which has saved lives and given hope to millions. We would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone, every government that supported our appeals over the last year, and to urge Member States to ensure timely funding for humanitarian operations in Syria and neighboring refugee-hosting countries in 2019. The Conference in Brussels on 12-14 March will be a critical marker in this regard.
- UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
- To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.