Transcript of the press stakeout by Mr. Jan Egeland, UN Senior Advisor to the UN Special Envoy for Syria, 1 February 2018
JE: Thank you very much. We just concluded the Humanitarian Task Force meeting, and heard from colleagues sitting in Damascus, Gaziantep on the Turkish border and in Amman. The message was unusually blunt to the member states. When we need their ability to influence the parties on the ground the most in this bleak hour for humanitarian work, humanitarian diplomacy seems to be totally impotent. We are getting nowhere at the moment.
The last UN convoy to a besieged area was at the end of November, 28th of November to a place called al-Nashabieh and it was only for 7,200 people.
So through December and through January there hasn’t been a single convoy of life-saving relief, medical supplies, food to any besieged area, that is the worst we have experienced since 2015 before we started our work. We have not had any medical evacuations since the end of December from eastern Ghouta.
The summing up of 2017, which we also did, is again horrific, the history of the war of Syria is really a war of millions of people fleeing for their lives, every single year for the last six years. The figures that are now made which are counting displacements, how many times a child, a woman and a man displaced last year in Syria. Well, 2 million and 875,000 times, nearly 2.9 million times.
So that’s you know a quarter of a million per month, they fled to three thousand places, many of them war-torn in Syria. We haven’t seen such a catastrophe of unprotected people in a generation.
Among the places that was most hard-hit in terms of displacements was Deir ez-Zor where we had the campaign against Islamic State forces, 850,000 people fled, number two was Raqqa, also a campaign that had an enormous cost on civilian lives, and the third one was Aleppo last year.
So can we continue like this? No, we cannot continue like this, it is more than the city of Geneva being displaced every single month, in one country. One of the places that people fled too massively was Idlib, so people fleeing for their lives end up to a large degree in the province of Idlib. It took 641,000 arrivals in the last year.
Well now the war also came to Idlib, it is coming after them, so only in the last three weeks 170,000 times a person has been displaced within Idlib, or to Idlib from the adjacent Hama area. 170,000 displacements in three weeks, 270,000 since mid-December.
So the situation is screaming for a ceasefire there, told the members of the humanitarian task force, we cannot have a (inaudible) warfare in what is essentially a refugee camp.
Idlib is densely populated and it is filled to the brim with refugees and displaced. Of the 2.4 million civilians there, 1.2 million are internally displaced, many have been displaced many times, so again, and again they are displaced. We need an end to the fighting and we need to have Russia, Turkey and Iran again get de-escalation, as they called it, which did work to a large degree in 2017, now there is no de-escalation. On the contrary hospitals are being bombed, displaced civilians are being hit in cross-fire by both sides, and in air raids, including the hospital in Saraqeb which was hit twice in nine days on the 21st and 29th of January and heroic aid doctors were then wounded or killed as they treated civilians from another attack.
In Eastern Ghouta we need a humanitarian pause and we need it desperately. A humanitarian pause is something you declare when civilians cannot be treated, helped, reached, assisted and we have that kind of situation now. A humanitarian pause is where both sides of the conflict say: let’s stop our hostilities and let the mutual impartial humanitarian workers come and help us and let’s evacuate the wounded.
We urged again a special effort to get such a humanitarian pause, we have indications from both sides that they want it, but it hasn’t happened and it is both sides who have to help us here, there are air raids, there is fighting from government side, but there is a barrage of mortars and grenades going from this area into civilian neighborhoods in Damascus.
Let me also mention a couple of other places, there are three other besieged areas outside of eastern Ghouta, which is by far the biggest besieged area now with 390,000 people, those three areas are Foua and Kafraya besieged by armed opposition groups, in Idlib, there are some 8000 or more civilians there. And then there is Yarmouk, which is the Palestinian refugee camp close to Damascus, and we are going to none of these three places because the armed groups around Foua and Kafraya and government allied forces around Yarmouk are blocking our access respectively. We haven’t been there for four months.
In Raqqa I was surprised, taken aback by having now been some534 blast-wounded and 112 confirmed deaths in Raqqa city after it had been retaken from Islamic State because of unexploded ordnances. Basically it was such a voracious campaign from land and from air that the civilians who have returned, and there has been around 60,000 of them, see people dying and being wounded around them in high numbers every week, up to 50 causalities per week, which is again a stark reminder that those who talk about this is the time for the return of millions of refugees and the millions of displaced to Syria, they don’t really know what they are talking about because most places of Syria are still unsafe and it is unsafe for many reasons including that the place had been peppered by explosives.
Perhaps a final issue, Afrin, the Turkish military operation Olive Branch has now been going on for already sometime and we have reports of 15,000 civilians fleeing into Afrin town. There are also reports that local authorities make it hard for people to flee from the Afrin area. We are very concerned also there for the protection of civilians.
So, we need a re-boot really, that’s our humanitarian message to the member states, they are not effectively getting results on either of the two sides, we are failing hundreds of thousands of people in the besieged and hard to reach areas, as we are assisting millions and millions in government controlled areas and opposition controlled areas that are not in the crossfire.
This is a war where armed men are specializing in the suffering of the civilian population and those who are their sponsors are not able to end it. That’s my thing.
Question: You mentioned enormous causalities in Raqqa, who has the biggest responsibility for those civilian loss in Raqqa because as far as we know not many civilians live in Raqqa city right now after it was retaken, and the second question is Afrin, you said you are worried about civilian refugees in Afrin city, did you hear about PKK/PYD terrorist organization keep sending missiles into Turkish towns, and the other day a 17-year-old girl got killed in those missile attacks? So in the Turkish side as well civilian causalities were reported as well, did you hear about that?
JE: In Raqqa people seem to be let home too early, the clearing of explosives that were there, including those devilishly put up by the Islamic State before they left, too many people were sent home before it has been cleared, we had not had enough clearing of those explosives, and it was not true that this campaign was precise(inaudible), there were explosives all over civilian areas. So that is the protection concerns in terms of returns. My mandate and concern are civilians inside Syria, so I do not what happened on the Turkish side, I would be interested in any of your reports on that. We are very concerned for the thousands that flee inside the Afrin area and Afrin town.
Question: Can you be more clear about the casualties in Raqqa, how many explosions, how many civilians killed or maimed?
JE: On Raqqa, let us just sum up. In 2017, half a million people left the Raqqa department, and there were 491,000 movements within and to the area, so the displacement caused by the Raqqa campaign were tremendous, half a million people would leave, half a million people would be displaced within, it is not a million people because there are people displaced again and again. The war had caused tremendous displacements. On the explosives and so on, since the end of the offensive in October 2017, humanitarian actors have treated 534 blast-wounded and there has been 112 deaths recorded by humanitarian partners in their care. There are more that we are not aware of. This does not include Coalition numbers of deaths nor that occurred after patients were referred to hospitals. And the numbers of deaths after referral are still pending.
Between the 13th and 19th of January, in a week, 36 blast-wounded resulted in 7 confirmed deaths. Since mid-December to 20January, in a month, 203 were wounded, including 38 confirmed deaths, so this is tremendous up to 50 casualties per week.
Question: Did Sochi change anything on the humanitarian front? that’s one question In Afrin you said 15,000 displacements, but my understanding is that it’s not possible for people to flee in certain places, and I just wonder if you have any other figures for maybe the total population affected by this offensive, and also are there any plans for a new Astana meeting or anything else I mean, what did the member states come away from the meeting this morning saying if you were urging them to have de-escalation for example, and you know is there any plan to follow up on that?
JE: Well, I certainly hope that the Sochi meetings will result in progress for us [ humanitarians], it hasn’t so far, but this very early days, let’s hope. As of today, we have seen no movement of UN convoys to besieged areas, we are not even seeing convoys to so-called hard to reach areas, cross-front-line to-hard to reach areas, and were seeing no medical supplies to hospitals in Eastern Ghouta or elsewhere [ across conflict lines] and we are seeing no evacuations. Our appeal was very clear to the Astana 3, you succeeded in doing de-escalation which saved a lot of lives, in some of the areas in 2017, please have a ceasefire again and de-escalation again in Idlib and other places because we need it urgently.
Question: And on the total affected population in the Afrin area?
JE: No I don’t have that, what I can confirm is that it is difficult for people to flee the area, so people are denied freedom of movement, from the area, including by local authorities, and the most solid figure we have is the 15,000 who fled into Afrin town from the surrounding areas.
Question: I just want to make sure I understood right from what you said about Raqqa, people are being allowed home or sent home, I think the term you used, sent home too early, who are they being sent home by? I also want to clarify the figure you said, between mid-December and 22 January 203 wounded, and how many killed?
JE: Nearly 60,000 individuals have reportedly returned since the end of hostilities in October 2017, that’s a large number, I assume that most of these, the majority, wanted to go home to secure their property, that’s what they want to. But I am astounded by the number of people who have been wounded, 50 wounded or dead per week because of unexploded ordinances, grenades, these are also the traps left behind by the Islamic State, so it is not ready in my view for safe returns and I don’t know if people have a really informed choice, which is what we always ask for, to me this seems to be too many people returning too early to a place that is not safe. I have no reports of anyone being sent against their will.
Question: You said that the people who are sponsoring these (cumbersome) are not able to exercise any real influence or get them any restrain, is that what they were telling you today at the meeting?
JE: What they are telling me is that they are working hard to help our access and help our work for assistance and protection of civilians. What they frequently refer to is all of the bad things that the other side is doing. The reason we are not making progress is that the other side is shelling, the other side is bombing, the other side is sabotaging, the other side is breaking agreements, the other side is doing a lot of things. And that is exactly what we also hear when we are talking to the government and the armed opposition parties on the ground. So we are denied access and that is because: stop the provocation of the other side, and then of course you can go. Why haven’t you stopped the provocations of the other side or the government says, why do you want to go with such a big load, and then we say: because that’s exactly our assessed needs, the government said: we don’t agree to that, you can go with half, which means that people are left with an impossible situation, cannot come with half of the supplies to half of the people that need the supplies, because it is seen as a provocation on the other side.
So I am so fed up with the counter arguments that these men in offices, men in suits and uniforms always have of why they are not allowing cross-line to the civilians on the other side. It has to stop.
Question: You said this is the worst it has been since 2015, right? By what matric are you saying, there were a lot of bad moments during the past, what specifically do you mean it is the worst? The two months-period since November 28 with no deliveries, because I recall there were longer periods with no deliveries to besieged areas, so if you could just specify that.
JE: When we started the work of the International Syria Support Group task force for humanitarian affairs it came at the wake of people dying, starving to death in besieged areas, especially in a place called Madaya. It led to the Foreign Ministers Lavrov and Kerry calling a meeting in Munich in February 2016 where they pledged to do a big effort with their like-mined, group of countries to help our access. And within 72 hours we were rolling to places where we haven’t been for years, because in 2015 there was no access. I think before only 2 places had convoys once. 2015 was complete starvation of everybody and it was by both sides. Since February 2016, we’ve never had a period of two full months with not a single delivery to any of the remaining besieged areas. I was always unhappy because we didn’t reach more people, but I could each month report on some delivery to some besieged areas, not these last two months.
Question: It seems based on what you were saying that the government’s willingness to cooperate with your work is in an all-time low, since this task force started, is that an accurate characterization?
JE: Yes, it is an all-time low in giving us facilitation letters, there is an enormous bureaucracy around all these things, we need to have approvals of a monthly plan, now a bi-monthly plan, then we need to have specific facilitation letters for each convoy and then we need to agree on the load list and then we need to have agreement from the security forces that are guarding our warehouses and so on, and it has been blocked on all these levels. But it is not like it is all on one side, it is all on one side and then a lot as well on the other side, our staff said, we are a little bit tired as you can see now because we were held awake by grenades coming into the area where we live from these areas, so we need a humanitarian pause and that takes both sides.
Geneva, 1 February 2018