Regular Press Briefing by the Information Service, 11 October 2019: Humanitarian situation in Syria
Humanitarian situation in Syria
Rhéal LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, said that the Secretary-General had the previous day expressed his deep concern about the escalation of conflict in northern Syria. He had said that a de-escalation was absolutely essential and that any military operations must always respect the United Nations Charter and international humanitarian law. There was a road map for a political solution, laid out in Security Council resolution 2254, and any solution must respect the territorial integrity and unity of the Syrian Arab Republic.
Jenifer Fenton, for the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Syria, read the following statement:
“At Thursday’s Humanitarian Task Force meeting in Geneva, Senior Humanitarian Adviser Najat Rochdi emphasized the need for protection of civilians in Syria’s north-east and for Member States to ensure that humanitarian needs across Syria are met.
Humanitarian needs in Syria remain significant and widespread with more than 11 million people requiring some form of humanitarian assistance, including 4.7 million living in areas of high severity of need.
The protection of civilians, humanitarian workers and civilian infrastructure in Syria’s north-east is a growing concern. Ongoing military operations in north-east Syria are likely to exacerbate an already challenging humanitarian situation. Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of further displacement, and the delivery of assistance is currently being disrupted with some agencies temporarily suspending operations. Ms. Rochdi reiterated that military operations must fully respect the UN Charter and international humanitarian law; civilians must be protected; sustained, unimpeded and safe humanitarian access to civilians in need must also be guaranteed; and any return of Syrian refugees to this area from Turkey must be voluntary, safe and dignified.
In Syria’s north-west, the humanitarian needs in the Idlib area remain extensive. Four million people are up against a harsh winter, including some 600,000 people who live in tents, makeshift camps or sites for internally displaced persons. For thousands, including women and children, the only shelters they could find are trees in rural areas. While the continued de-escalation in violence is welcome and necessary, Ms. Rochdi voiced her concern to HTF members about reports of recent aerial bombardments and the overall precarious security situation. A shortage of funding is already straining a critical situation. In addition to existing needs, the humanitarian community estimates that USD 242.8 million would be required in order for the UN and its humanitarian partners to meet humanitarian needs. The UN Emergency Response Plan has been revised to respond to 1.1 million people in north-west Syria who may be affected by further escalation in violence.
In Rukban, the UN and the Syrian Arab Crescent (SARC) conducted a humanitarian operation from 26 to 29 September to assist families who had expressed their wishes and intent to depart from the camp, and to provide aid to those who choose to stay. Some 329 people voluntarily departed from Rukban, with many Rukban residents requiring further information about the return process. Further departures are planned in the coming weeks. UN-SARC also provided one month of humanitarian supplies to the people in Rukban, but more supplies will soon be needed. The UN is also awaiting access to the temporary shelters in Homs, for which further co-chairs support was sought. A durable solution needs to be urgently found for those who do not wish to relocate to Syrian Government-controlled areas.
The security situation in Al Hol remains unsustainable with some 68,600 people, 94 percent of whom are women and children, remaining. The UN continues to request that Member States seek solutions for their nationals, including through repatriation, in line with international human rights standards and acceptable international norms and laws, prioritising the best interest of the children.”
Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), read the following statement:
“We are very concerned about the impact that military operations may have on civilians in the affected areas in north-eastern Syria.
There are reports yesterday of intense shelling and airstrikes all along the north-eastern Syrian border with Turkey, from Jarablus to the west of the Euphrates to the Iraqi border. There are reports of shelling and casualties on the Turkish side of the border also. Air strikes were confirmed in several locations. Reports indicate that large numbers of people are on the move in search of safety.
Other areas such as Qamishli and Kobane were also affected by cross-border fire.
North-eastern Syria is home to an estimated 3 million people in total. The Syrian Democratic Forces-controlled area potentially affected by the military operation has a population of some 2.2 million people, the majority of whom need humanitarian aid. The potential affected area also includes the Government-controlled cities of Quamishli and Hassakeh city, hosting 450,000 people.
Humanitarian organizations were already assisting on average 850,000 people each month across the affected area.
UN and NGO staff remain on the ground and ready to respond, access and security permitting. But active military operations have had an impact on our ability to provide relief, and local authorities have reportedly imposed strict security measures at checkpoints. Some humanitarian partners in the north-east have temporarily suspended movement and activities due to insecurity.”
Mr. Laerke added that the Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, was currently in Turkey and would shortly issue a statement.
Christian Cardon de Lichtbuer, Deputy Head of Operations for the Near and Middle East of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said that the situation in the north-east of the Syrian Arab Republic had been very fragile even before the latest extremely worrying developments. More than 100,000 persons had been stranded in camps, most of them women and children. The political situation was extremely complex, there had been conflict in the country for more than 8 years and 11 million persons needed humanitarian assistance. However, the events of the previous 48 hours had brought all the ingredients for yet another humanitarian crisis in the country. ICRC called on all actors involved in the fighting, both on the ground in north-eastern Syria and outside, to ensure respect for the basic rules of international humanitarian law: respect for civilians, and respect and protection for all those who were not – or were no longer – participants in the fighting, including the thousands of detainees being held in the area. The humanitarian actors must be allowed to do their work – which, even previously, had been but a drop in the ocean compared to the needs that existed. ICRC also called on all States with nationals stranded in the north-east of the Syrian Arab Republic to take the opportunity to repatriate them immediately.
Marixie Mercado, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), read the following statement:
“In Ras al-Ain, the Alouk water pumping station reportedly came under attack early yesterday morning (10 October). This station provides safe water to at least 400,000 people in Hassakeh governorate, including displacement camps. Technical and operational staff have not been able to get to the water station to repair it due to ongoing hostilities.
In Tal Abiad, two schools have reportedly been taken over for military use.
UNICEF partners in Tal Abiad and Ras al-Ain have had to stop most of their work. Many of their staff and volunteers are among the displaced population. Child Protection programmes have been suspended in Ras al-Ain, Mabrouka camp, Tal Halaf, Sulok and Tal Abiad. Health and Nutrition response in Ras al-Ain and Mabourka camp have also been suspended. Schools in these areas are closed and water supply is affected.
UNICEF maintains presence in Qamishli through staff, facilitators and partners. We have stocks of water, sanitation and hygiene, health and nutrition supplies, plus winter clothing, to meet the needs of 45,000 children and women for one month. We have more supplies in pipeline.
We reiterate the appeal made by our Executive Director on Wednesday for parties to protect children and the civilian infrastructure on which they depend – in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law.”
Hervé Verhoosel, for the World Food Programme (WFP), read the following statement:
“WFP continues to support people in the north-east despite the acute deterioration in the security situation.
WFP is deeply concerned about the possible impact of developments in north-eastern Syria and is closely monitoring the situation on the ground.
Displacement: Mass population displacement has been reported since the escalation of violence. Over 70,000 people from Ras Al-Ayn (Al-Hassakeh governorate) and Tal Abyad (Raqqa governorate) had been displaced so far.
The majority have moved to host communities in Al-Hasakeh district, several thousand have left to rural Ar-Raqqa governorate, and many others are moving towards Ar-Raqqa city where the local council prepared four public shelters to receive IDPs, where WFP will be covering food needs.
WFP Response: In Al-Hasakeh, WFP is providing emergency food assistance (ready-to-eat meals) to around 11,000 people through our partner the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, WFP with partners continue to assess the needs on the ground. In Raqqa, WFP is coordinating with the local council and partner NGOs on the ground to assess the food need and provide emergency food assistance.
WFP Preparedness: In coordination with the UN Humanitarian Country Team, WFP is prepositioning ready-to-eat meals, nutritional supplies, and food rations to respond to immediate needs of people who had to flee their areas. WFP is prioritizing emergency response to the people on the move while allocating enough rations to ensure the continuation of regular food distribution.
WFP operations in the North-east: WFP supports close to 650,000 people in north-eastern Syria with monthly general food assistance through WFP field office in Qamishli. The majority of them (580,000) people are currently living in Kurdish-controlled areas.
The impact on WFP operations: As of today, WFP and its partners continue to support people in the north-east despite the acute deterioration in the security situation. WFP is closely monitoring the situation on the ground. The distribution of food assistance requires secure and regular access to ensure that life-saving food assistance is reaching hundreds of thousands of food-insecure people in the North-east.
About WFP Qamishli office: WFP currently has 32 staff members operating in the Field Office in Qamishli. Some precautionary measures have been taken for their safety, which will be reassessed as needed.
WFP and the UN reminds all parties to the conflict, and those who have influence over them, of their obligations under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure at all times.”
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), read the following statement:
“We have begun receiving reports of civilian casualties – as of last night we had reports of seven civilians, including two women and a boy who had been killed with another boy injured, during the first two days of the Turkish operation. In addition, a civilian man was reported killed in Jarablus on 9 October and a woman and a boy injured yesterday during counter-attacks and ground strikes by Kurdish non-State armed groups.
We have received disturbing reports that airstrikes and ground-based attacks by Turkish army and affiliated armed groups have affected key civilian infrastructure and objects such as water pumping stations, dams, power stations, and oil fields. On 9 October, water reportedly ceased to flow from the main water supply station in the area of Alouk in al-Hassakeh governorate, as a result of a Turkish airstrike. It is likely that thousands of people will be deprived of adequate access to clean water in the area supplied by the station.
We are also hearing that areas in northern Syria, such as Afrin, al-Bab, Jarablus, and Azaz that were already under the control of Turkish forces and/or affiliated armed groups, are continuing to face lawlessness and rampant criminality and violence. We have had specific reports of intimidation, ill-treatment, killing, kidnapping, looting and seizure of civilians’ houses by the Turkish-backed armed groups in these areas, with civilians reportedly seized by members of these groups from their homes or at checkpoints, accused of affiliation with specific Kurdish armed or political groups. The fate and whereabouts of many of those civilians remain unknown.”
As the Turkish operation continues inside Syria, we would like to stress the following:
• The parties to the conflict should avoid using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas. By their very nature, indirect-fire weapons such as artillery increase the risk to civilians and civilian infrastructure.
• Civilians and civilian infrastructure are to be protected from attack and from the effects of the hostilities.
• Attacking, or rendering useless, objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as water and sanitation facilities, is prohibited.”
Responding to questions from journalists, Mr. Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said that the policy of OCHA and other United Nations agencies was always to stay in the field if at all possible, in order to deliver humanitarian assistance. They were therefore doing that, notably at the United Nations hub in Quamishli, but their ability to operate was seriously hindered by the fighting and the strict security measures imposed at checkpoints by local authorities. Some partner non-governmental organizations had relocated their staff.
Neither OCHA, nor any of the other humanitarian agencies, had been involved in establishing any safe zones. OCHA had not received reports of any air strikes or other hostilities outside of the zone targeted by the Turkish armed forces. However, the absence of reports did not mean that none had taken place.
Christian Cardon de Lichtbuer, for ICRC, said, in response to journalists’ questions, that it was as yet difficult to assess how many persons had fled as a result of the conflict or where they were moving to. Their numbers could be counted at least in thousands. Many areas to the south of the current conflict zone, such as Raqqa, had seen their infrastructure destroyed in previous fighting and were contaminated with munitions; they could not accommodate thousands more displaced persons. ICRC was continuing to work in north-eastern Syria, in cooperation with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, assessing needs and looking at ways of stepping up its activities. A field hospital had been set up in Al Hol camp and might now be used to treat victims of the current operations. The situation was changing extremely quickly, and it could only be assumed that people would move southwards, perhaps towards the border with Iraq. ICRC, with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, hoped to be able to help meet their needs. The focus was on the provision of food and health care, but also on helping displaced persons keep in touch with their families.
On the question of the detainees held in the area hit by the conflict, ICRC had previously had access to several places of detention and hoped that it would be able to continue monitoring the situation. As detainees were no longer participating in fighting, they too deserved protection.
Andrej Mahecic, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), responding to questions from journalists, said that any area designated as a safe zone for refugees must meet the requirements of international humanitarian law, including having the consent of the host Government, and being run on a civilian basis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, had, the previous day, reiterated the position of UNHCR that any return of refugees to Syria had to be voluntary, dignified and at a time when it was safe to return. It was up to refugees to decide when they wished to return. The displacement caused by the conflict was now internal, within the borders of the Syrian Arab Republic; it seemed that people were moving to the south but there had been no reports of any arrivals in Iraq. The Al Hol refugee camp, which was affected by the military action, was administered by the Kurdish authorities, and UNHCR was not aware of what their plans might be. The situation in the camps was very complex, with groups of Iraqi nationals, displaced Syrians and a large group of third-country nationals.
Hervé Verhoosel, for the World Food Programme (WFP), said that WFP was working with the United Nations country team; given the speed at which the situation was changing, flexibility was of the utmost importance. He had no information on the capacity of the four public shelters for internally displaced persons in Ar-Raqqa city that had been set up by the local council.
Rupert Colville, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that the cases of lawlessness had occurred in areas that had already been under the control of armed groups affiliated with the Turkish forces. For instance, on 25 August 2019, the house of an elderly couple, both in their seventies, had been raided by one such group. The house had been looted and the couple beaten with guns and fists. The husband had died on the spot and the wife, seriously injured, had died two weeks later.
Marixie Mercado, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said that an estimated 68,000 people remained in Al Hol camp, with women and children making up more than 90 per cent of the population. Of the estimated 47,000 children in the camp, approximately 19,000 were Syrian. The rest, 28,000, came from 60 different countries, including 20,000 from Iraq. Most were under the age of 12. Those children were among the most vulnerable. They faced enormous legal, logistical and political challenges accessing basic services and returning to their countries of origin. UNICEF was asking that those children should be treated as victims, not perpetrators, and that every decision should be made in their best interest. She added that UNICEF was currently ensuring the provision of most of the water supplies in Al Hol camp.