Transcript of Press Stakeout by Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Ms. Najat Rochdi, 11 April 2019
NR: Thank you very much Alessandra. Good morning everybody and thank you for your patience. It is a pleasure to hold my first press stakeout here, but I recognize some familiar faces from my previous incarnation, as Humanitarian Coordinator in some countries, so it is really great to see you again and as I used to say, I would like really to thank you very sincerely as media because you are our best ambassador when it comes to amplifying our concerns regarding humanitarian assistance and the humanitarian situations and challenges we are facing, and as you can imagine, in Syria, it is even more challenging than anywhere else.
We have just completed a Humanitarian Task Force meeting, this was the first time I chaired the meeting since taking up my functions as Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the UN Special Envoy for Syria. I would like us to clarify a number of things before getting to the issues that were discussed and let me, and allow me to say a few words about the way I see my role.
Though I am an adviser to the Special Envoy for Syria, and I act as a chairperson for the Humanitarian Task Force, which obviously we all know is a political body, I am very much a humanitarian and I see my task as to ensure or focus attention of the members, which I repeated today several times you know throughout actually the meeting of the International Syria Support Group, on the protection needs of all Syrians, wherever they are, and on the respect, and I would say, strict respect for the key humanitarian principles. It is those principles that will guide me and should guide all of us, it is also a collective responsibility to protect and a duty to protect, and it is also putting the Syrian people at the center of whatever we are doing in the HTF.
I have shared that with all the members of the HTF so they know what they can expect and not expect of course from me as a Senior Humanitarian Adviser.
As you know, unfortunately, the conflict in Syria is now in its ninth year, and massive humanitarian needs persist. Active conflict continues in some areas, as does the risk of further escalation in Idlib, with potentially catastrophic humanitarian consequences. Civilians and civilian structures including schools, and hospitals cannot and should not be a target, and parties must abide by international humanitarian law.
I want to highlight three key areas of concern that we discussed today:
First, on Idlib, we are deeply concerned about several reports we have been receiving over the past weeks and days on the intensification of military activities, which cause causalities and displacement among civilians. Violence has impacted on civilian infrastructure, as well as on humanitarian operations, but most importantly on peoples’ lives and safety. The numbers are disturbing. We believe that since February 106,000 people have fled their homes and at least 190 people had been killed as a direct result of increased military clashes and attacks. We have also seen several civilian structures including health and education facilities being hit. Among them were two hospitals in Idlib city and one in the town of Masyaf, west of Hama. There are 3 million people in Idlib, 2.1 million need humanitarian support, and 1.4 million people have already been displaced at least once. We have a readiness plan for up to 900,000 people who could be affected in north-western Syria if limited military action takes place, but many more people would be affected.
Any large-scale military offensive in the northwest would put thousands of lives at risk and affect an even larger number of people and very likely overwhelm our humanitarian partners. So not only that the people there are taxed because they are in a region where there are some groups, but moreover they are taxed and die because of the strikes. The Humanitarian Task Force encouraged all sides, especially Turkey and the Russian Federation, as guarantors of de-escalation agreement, to continue their cooperation to prevent further escalation of violence and a major offensive on Idlib that would have a devastating impact on civilians and on protection of civilians.
I have made this plea during the HTF, but I have also made it during bilateral meetings. This plea reflects the message that Special Envoy Pedersen and the UN colleagues in the humanitarian agencies working on the ground have continually passed to the relevant Member States as well as Syrian parties to the conflict.
The parties to the conflict have a particular responsibility to protect civilians and allow access for humanitarian aid for those in need. I urge all parties on the ground to cease all violence and I remind them of their obligations and collective responsibility under international humanitarian law and humanitarian human rights law.
Escalation of conflict in north-western Syria is already coming at an unacceptable cost, in terms of loss of human lives and suffering and is definitely not conveying the positive narrative we need for the people of Syria, for them to start hoping and we all have a duty of hope.
Second, on Hajin and Al Hol camp, we remain concerned about the welfare of the tens of thousands of internally displaced people in the Al Hol camp in north-east Syria, al-Hasaka Governorate, most of them arrived from ISIL-held areas of Deir ez-Zor Governorate. The camp population now exceeds 73,000, and you know that the camp was initially set for 41,000 people. While the influx of new arrivals has fallen, many of the latest arrivals are in critical health condition and the capacity at referral hospitals is already overwhelmed.
There is also an urgent need for expanded health services in the camp, among the vulnerable people are pregnant women, girls, people with disabilities, and unaccompanied and separated minors, and many of them, if it is not all of them, arrived in a very, very, very precarious situation of malnutrition and health issues.
As 92 percent of camp residents are women and children, the camp is scaling up protection measures to address their specific concerns. There are also 355 unaccompanied minors or separated children. Despite a massive relief effort by the United Nations and humanitarian partners with the support and the funding from donors, an effort which continues to be scaled up, pressing needs remain in shelter, water and sanitation, hygiene, health and protection.
The United Nations and humanitarian partners called on the HTF co-chairs, Russia and the US, as well as on other HTF members, to continue supporting the humanitarian response and to facilitate the provision of assistance to all those in need without discrimination. This includes not imposing any conditionalities or restrictions on humanitarian organizations working in Al Hol.
In the meantime, as the needs remain significant, the UN requires some US$27 million to sustain the response for the next several months. The Syria Humanitarian Fund has dispersed so far to reserve allocations for some US$16 million.
Last point, on Rukban. About 40,000 people live in the make-shift settlement in south-eastern Syria in dire conditions as you know. A durable solution for the population in Rukban is needed, given the dire humanitarian situation in the settlement and in line with the results of the intention survey that was done in February that showed clearly that most people want to leave if they are provided with protection guarantees. Over 1,700 to 2,000 people have left the camp in recent weeks.
The UN has not been directly involved in these evacuations. We have repeatedly expressed our readiness to engage in facilitating dialogue with the communities accompanying people that decide to leave and in providing humanitarian assistance and services at each stage of their movement. So far, the UN has not been granted access to the places of return. Given the movement of people out of Rukban, it will be gradually, with many possibly choosing to stay, we are very much concerned, making sure that a third humanitarian convoy, for food and fuel, to continue to arrive to Rukban through commercial routes.
Those were the key points I wanted to raise with you and to share with you as we discussed today in the HTF. I am available for questions. Thank you very much.
Question: Congratulations on your new role. Good luck. I would like to ask two questions, one about Idlib, and one about Al Hol. On Idlib, is there any sign of this plan for resolution of this zone, moving towards any kind of progress? Is it progressing or is the conflict there just frozen and is going to continue in its current state indefinitely? Do you see any evolution? And on Al Hol, if there were tens of thousands of women who came out of this Islamic state enclave in Baghouz, presumably there were also tens of thousands of men, do you know how many died in the battle, or how many were taken prisoners? Any numbers for the men from Islamic State.
NR: On Idlib, what I can tell you and there were extensive discussions, bilaterally, or trilaterally and with Turkey as well, about the importance of making sure that the MoU and the de-escalation is something that is still on the table, and I know and I am very much encouraged by the discussion between Russian Federation and Turkey in resuming some joint patrolling to make sure that somehow the escalation is not going to increase there. Apart from that, I mean, at my level, as Senior Humanitarian Adviser, I don’t have other information regarding other issues.
On Al Hol, yes, most of the displaced are women, children and elderly and we noticed actually that there is no boy or man older than 12 or 15 years old, so that answers your question, I have no information regarding the number of people you know who were detained and I have already provided in my initial statement some of the figures we have about how many people were killed.
Question: You said you are very concerned about the situation in Al Hol camp, but you never mentioned that the Syrian Democratic Forces are controlling this camp, Al Hol camp, according to some credible reports the Syrian Democratic Forces are treating very badly the civilians there and are torturing and abusing them. Do you have any information about these allegations to share with us?
NR: I am afraid I don’t.
Q: I had a question on Rukban camp, you said that you don’t have access to the areas where people are returning to, do you have any information coming from there about what the humanitarian situation is, any conversations about what conditions people are facing when they return?
NR: Well actually no, I mean we are asking for that almost three times a day it is becoming our breakfast, lunch and dinner conversation you know, and that’s exactly the reason why we are so much insisting on making sure that our colleagues still have access in the areas of return. I mean we are provided with some guarantees, of course from the co-chair here, mainly the Russian Federation, that people are treated very well, and that people are getting humanitarian assistance provided by the Government of Syria. We got also some guarantees, without being able to verify anything, that there won’t be any persecutions or any security issues for them to return there, but we are still advocating for us to still get access because as United Nations and as you know protection is really very key when it comes to those returns, we would like to be involved from start to finish and not only in the middle of the process for reason A or B.
The second message that we are really conveying very strongly whether from Damascus or from here is that, as humanitarians we are happy, and we celebrate the day that everybody is going back home and of course nobody is against the return, but this return has to be organized in a principled way and obviously: safely, voluntary, and dignified. Moreover, if the return of Rukban people to their areas of origin is happening very well that’s a wonderful opportunity to convey a very positive message and a positive narrative to all Syria so people can start hoping again and believing again, and somehow building trust. So Rukban is a test case for everybody.
Q: The war has been winding down, I just want to know sort of broadly what is your main concern for the coming period if you could just sort of describe it, I mean is it Idlib, is it Rukban, is it some other places? And Al Hol, could you just give us a really detailed description of what the problems are in Al Hol?
NR: Well thank you very much, well as humanitarian our main concern is really access and protection obviously across Syria. Today, we address Rukban, Idlib and Al Hol, but obviously wherever there is an issue with protection, wherever there is an issue with access it is important and we will keep addressing them, and it is not because we do not discuss them in every single HTF that it is not important, but sometimes some of the issues become more pressing than others, but it does not mean that we are giving up on the other areas.
Al Hol, you know the concerns we have for Al Hol first of all is that today with 73,000 IDPs we have largely exceeded the camp capacity to host them, and this situation is really leading to some tension as well between the different communities, and it was agreed that there will be an expansion of the camp so at least people will be hosted in acceptable shelters and family shelters.
As shared with you, 92 percent of the population are women and children, and we have great concerns about child protection, but also about family reunification and we really need to take it very seriously and to do something about it. Our colleagues in Syria, in Damascus have set-up a working group to address specifically those issues and during the HTF we have made an urgent call to everybody to also help with that. We have in Al Hol camp 43 percent who are displaced Syrians, 42 percent who are Iraqis, and 15 percent who are third country nationals, and we need to address the needs and specific you know measures to be taken for every single community you know so we should not dilute the issue of the TCN for example, and they should be provided also with durable solutions, and if repatriation is happening based on the willingness of the countries to repatriate their nationals this also needs to be done in respect of their rights.
Q: The figure that you just cited about 42 percent are Iraqis is that correct, that is a new figure to me why are there so many Iraqis?
NR: I don’t have the answer, but I will make sure to check and to provide you with the answer.
Q: Who controls the camp actually you did not mention, who controls the Al Hol camp? Which forces?
NR: What do you mean?
Q: As far as we know Syrian Democratic Forces are in charge to control the Al Hol camp, so do you have different information rather than this?
NR: I don’t.
Q: Thank you, you referred in your introductory remarks to conditionality and restrictions in Al Hol, can you expand a little bit further as to what is happening your operations?
NR: The main issue we have in Al Hol is mainly the need to scale up our humanitarian assistance and obviously, you know there was a massive displacement to Al Hol that was really not predictable and really that’s the main challenge we have, but again because of the composition of the IDPs you know in the camp sometimes this is bringing some issues, and our role as humanitarians and our clear message was that we will abide by the humanitarian principles where we provide humanitarian assistance without any discrimination. Hence maybe the lack of information when it comes to who is in the camp, who are the groups, who is controlling—that’s not really our objective, that’s not really our priority—we would like to make sure that whoever is in need of humanitarian assistance will get it without any aid being diverted to anything else.
Geneva, 11 April 2019