Op-ed: Cross-border aid operation in north-west Syria is a lifeline for millions of people, says Mark Cutts, United Nations Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis

People across Syria are worse off than at any time since the conflict began 10 years ago. The suffering is heart breaking in the north-west, where millions of people, most of them women and children, have been trapped along the border with Turkey in an active war zone.

More than 2.7 million people have fled to the north-west, an area outside the control of the Government of Syria. They have come in search of safety, surviving horrific sieges in places like Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta, Homs or Raqqa. Their lives depend on the UN trucks that bring food, medicines, shelter and other life-saving aid across the border from Turkey. The international community has not been able to stop the carnage in Syria, but it has managed to keep people alive by getting essential food, medical supplies and shelter to them.

Um Aiham lives with her five children in one of the ramshackle displacement camps. “Closing the crossing will mean death for us,” she said. “The medicine for my diabetes and high blood pressure and the food for the children all come across the border.” More than 1,000 trucks cross the border every month. When 1 million people were displaced last year in the north-west in the largest single movement of people since the conflict began, humanitarian workers were able to provide them with food, medicine, protection and shelter. In May, 26,000 people received their first COVID-19 vaccination thanks to the border crossing.

The Security Council approves the assistance annually. When it did so a year ago, its Members said that “the devastating humanitarian situation in Syria continues to constitute a threat to peace and security in the region.” As they again debate renewing the authorization for another 12 months, the need for cross-border assistance deliveries into Syria is even more critical today.

I’ve worked in conflict zones for the last three decades – in places such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and the West Bank and Gaza. But north-west Syria is one of the most desperate humanitarian situations I’ve ever seen.

Most people live in flimsy tents, in valleys that flood, or on rocky hillsides where there is not enough water. Many have been killed or injured as fires have ripped through crowded camps. Tens of thousands of tents have been washed away during floods. Outside the camps, there are a million more displaced people. Some have found refuge in unfinished buildings, or in the ruins of bombedout towns and villages. Others are sheltering in abandoned schools and warehouses.

Traumatized by all they have been through, most people fear returning to the Governmentcontrolled areas they fled from. They cannot cross the border legally into Turkey either, which already hosts more Syrian refugees than the rest of the world put together. As the fight escalates, they find themselves trapped in a war zone again, but this time there is nowhere left to run.

Dr. Mohamed Altwaish is a field medical coordinator in north-west Syria for a local aid agency, Hand in Hand for Aid and Development. “Poverty is everywhere,” he said. “In a maternity hospital this week, a pregnant woman needed an operation and her husband didn’t have the few coins necessary for fuel to get to the blood bank. Staff paid for it themselves.” The doctor fears that without UN assistance, children will starve, COVID-19 will rampage through crowded camps, and there will be violence and further displacement. “Despite the UN’s massive response in Syria and across the region, more humanitarian access is required to reach those most in need,” said António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, at the Security Council on 23 June, expressing how important it is to maintain and expand access. With more crossings and more funds, the UN could do more to help the rising number of people in need.
We can only hope that one day soon there will be a political solution to the conflict in Syria.

Meanwhile, we can save lives through vital cross-border access. By renewing authorization before it runs out this 10 July, the Security Council will ensure that millions of civilians trapped in a war zone continue to get the help they so desperately need.