Briefing to the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria
New York, 24 August 2021
Thank you very much, Mr. President, and greetings to Geir [Pedersen, Special Envoy for Syria] as well.
Mr. President, ongoing hostilities, economic crisis, water shortages and COVID-19 are driving humanitarian needs for millions of already vulnerable people to some of the highest levels that we have seen since the start of the conflict.
Complementing what Geir has just told you, I will cover five points today, as he has indicated: first, protection of civilians; second, impact of the economic crisis; third, the water crisis; fourth, COVID-19; and finally, humanitarian access.
Let me begin then with the protection of civilians and the critical infrastructure they rely on.
Ten years into this conflict, civilians in all parts of Syria continue to endure grave hardship. Of course, it has gone on far too long. In particular, women and children have suffered immense physical and psychological trauma throughout the years of conflict. Reports of families, for example, increasingly resorting to early marriage as a means to provide for their daughters due to the uncertainty of their circumstances – these are all too familiar.
In June and July, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recorded at least 153 civilian deaths and 280 civilian injuries, many of them women and children, as a result of hostilities across the Syrian Arab Republic.
An increase in air strikes and shelling in the north-west killed at least 53 civilians in June and July, damaged critical civilian infrastructure, and displaced over 20,000 people. This is, in fact, the largest displacement since the ceasefire was announced in March of last year.
In the north-east, shelling since 18 August around Abu Rasin in Ras Al Ain sub-district and surrounding villages north of Tal Tamer has reportedly displaced over 8,000 people.
Security problems continue at Al Hol camp. Sixty-nine murders – 69 murders – have been reported since January, as well as 12 attempted murders.
Killings of and threats to women and girls in the camp increased in June and July, contributing further to a climate of fear. The dire needs in the camp and the extreme vulnerability and aid dependence of residents in the camp increases the risk of sexual exploitation and abuse.
Humanitarian workers, including protection volunteers and camp management staff, face regular threats.
About 59,000 people remain in the Al Hol camp, most of them women and children. One out of five camp inhabitants under the age of 5. This makes it even more critical to spotlight the voices, the experience and the leadership of women. We must not abandon them to the violence and the hopelessness of Al Hol.
On 5 August, High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet sounded the alarm at the plight of civilians in the recent escalation of violence in and around the city of Dar’a, and Geir has referred to this.
Fighting and heavy shelling, which started in late July, killed at least eight civilians, forced 35,000 people to flee their homes and damaged critical civilian infrastructure. Mortar shells hit the Dar’a National Hospital, causing its dialysis unit to shut down temporarily.
Civilians who remain in Dar’a al-Balad face acute shortages of bread and water, electricity, fuel and cooking gas. Health facilities are reportedly running out of supplies.
UN agencies and our partners are providing emergency assistance to displaced persons and host communities in Dara’a city and surrounding areas, including ready-to-eat rations, health supplies, medicines and other core relief items.
I echo the calls of Geir and the High Commissioner for Human Rights for an immediate ceasefire and urge all parties to end the violence, immediately and without preconditions. This is necessary to spare lives and livelihoods. And I also recall that all parties to the conflict must respect civilians and civilian infrastructure and take constant care to spare them. I urge the parties to facilitate rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access to all affected communities, including in Dara’a al-Balad itself, and to allow safe passage for those wishing to leave.
Mr. President, second point concerns the economic crisis and its impact on civilians.
In regular assessments conducted by the UN in July, a third of Syrian households interviewed indicated difficulties in accessing markets. This is the highest level recorded since April 2020.
One out of five households reported reduced access to medical care, and one out of four households indicated they had lost at least one source of income in the past month.
Loss of income and employment opportunities of course have had a negative effect on food security. Following a slight improvement in April and May, the food security situation deteriorated again in June and July, with a 15 per cent increase of inadequate food consumption nationwide compared to July of the previous year. High commodity prices and widespread loss of livelihoods forced more and more households to reduce meals and adopt negative coping strategies. Female-headed households, as you can imagine, are particularly impacted.
I referred already to child and early marriage, which are on the rise, driven by this crisis and exacerbated by the impact of COVID.
In this context, early recovery and livelihood activities – recovery and resilience – of the United Nations play a key role to support livelihoods and service delivery to vulnerable civilians in areas such as health, education, and in the creation of economic opportunities. In July, for instance, the UN supported the rehabilitation of health facilities and markets, benefitting over 24,000 patients, shop owners and creating jobs, as well as supporting over 6,300 vulnerable people with various opportunities for livelihoods.
Third point is the water crisis in Syria, Mr. President. In the north-east, water levels in the Euphrates River, flowing into Syria from Turkey, sank to a critically low point. Precipitation decreased between 50 and 70 per cent compared to the long-term average, while low snow and rainfall also impacted water sources in the wider region.
By late June, 54 of the 73 drinking-water stations along the western bank of the Euphrates and 44 of 126 water stations on the eastern bank, this proportion had been significantly or severely impacted by critically low water levels. Reserves for the main dams in the area have also reached historic lows. This is a very distressing outcome, and of course it is linked to climate change.
Over 5 million people rely on the river for drinking water and electricity, as does vital infrastructure including hospitals, irrigation networks, obviously, and water stations.
Water shortages in the Euphrates, exacerbated by drought, are expected to damage crops, worsen the already dire food situation, exacerbate public health concerns, and lead to more loss of livelihoods.
At Alouk water station in Al Hasakah Governorate, pumping remained limited. From 23 June to 30 July – just over a month later – the water station shut down completely, limiting access to safe drinking water for 1 million people, including the 100,000 residents at that time of Al Hol camp and related settlements.
Water levels were insufficient to reach most of the population ordinarily served. And a high-cost emergency trucking operation which was put into place could only cover 20 per cent of daily water needs while that station was out of action.
Electricity supply to that station remains inadequate and unreliable, reducing the amount of water that can be pumped and, of course, having an impact on its functioning. Technicians from Hasakah water and electricity directorates were able finally to gain limited access there on 30 July, after 83 days with no access at all. So this was a critically important impediment.
Now, since early August, Alouk water station continues to operate, but intermittently. In the past days, no water has reached Al Himmeh reservoir, reportedly due to discontinued power supply from Derbasiyeh sub-station. So reliable access to safe water is critical to the hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people in that area, and they are in desperate condition.
COVID-19, Mr. President.
Transmission rates remain high and likely far beyond official records, as is the case in many countries, exacerbating an already dire humanitarian situation.
Vaccinations are under way across Syria, prioritizing health-care workers. The first batch of 270,000 doses delivered through COVAX has been distributed.
By 23 August, over 218,900 people, more or less, were vaccinated in Government-controlled areas and the north-east, while over 58,000 people were vaccinated in the north-west.
On 15 August, Syria received the second batch of COVAX vaccines, totalling about 138,000 doses for Government-controlled areas and north-east Syria, and over 36,000 for north-west Syria, administered from Gaziantep in Turkey.
However, the available vaccines are sufficient to cover less than 1 per cent of Syria’s population.
So we need to speed up scale and pace of vaccinations to prevent the pandemic from further devastating the lives of those in need there.
Finally, Mr. President, access – humanitarian access.
First of all, let me welcome the Security Council’s unanimous decision on 9 July to extend the UN cross-border mechanism in north-west Syria.
Cross-border humanitarian assistance remains an essential lifeline for millions of people. The reauthorization will help ensure humanitarian assistance continues for over 3.4 million people in need, including in that 3.4, 1 million children.
Operations are set to increase in the coming weeks, with more food dispatches and the start of winterization activities.
In addition to cross-border, the UN continues engaging with partners to increase crossline assistance. I am pleased to report that progress has been made.
In the north-east, between January and July, 1,588 trucks containing humanitarian assistance crossed lines into the north-east, an average of 227 a month, compared to 199 a month in the same period a year before. Humanitarian partners also assisted 791,000 people each month crossline in the north-east between January and May 2021, compared to 602,000 in the same period in 2020. I hope everyone is getting these figures. I am sure we will distribute this.
In July and August, the UN also conducted two inter-agency assessment missions in Al Talae/Serikaniye and Tweina/Washokani camps in Hasakah Governorate hosting more than 26,000 internally displaced persons. Both camps were established to accommodate people displaced from Ras al-Ain and Tell Abiad in November 2019.
Other areas, including Manbij and Ayn al-Arab, remained difficult for the UN and its partners to reach crossline.
Further progress is important and necessary and essential to expand the overall response, as humanitarian needs, as they do continue to grow, particularly for health and medical items.
The UN and our partners are looking at every opportunity to establish crossline access into the north-west of course.
The UN humanitarian operation is one of the largest humanitarian operations worldwide. Each month, the UN and its partners reach about 6.6 million people all over the country.
Needs, of course, are outstripping the response, and much more support is required to alleviate the suffering in Syria. As of 23 August, the UN and its partners received about a quarter – 27 per cent, in fact – of all funding required under the 2021 Humanitarian Response Plan for Syria.
As requested by the Council, we will continue to strengthen reporting on new elements of resolution 2585 (2021), namely, particularly progress on crossline access, transparency and early recovery activities.
I plan, Mr. President, to travel to the region, to Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, in the period ahead to gain a deeper understanding now in my new function of the complexities of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, as well as challenges for the months ahead.
And I look forward, Mr. President, to briefing you and the Council upon my return.
Thank you very much.
- UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
- To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.