UNHCR calls afresh on Syria's warring parties to allow aid delivery

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GENEVA, March 26 (UNHCR) – The UN refugee agency on Tuesday called again on all parties to ensure safe passage for convoys delivering humanitarian aid to civilians inside Syria. "In the current security environment, several convoys have had to be cancelled or delayed. This is depriving many Syrians of vitally needed help," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva.

According to the UN's latest estimates, at least 3.6 million people are internally displaced in Syria. UNHCR is working with government and non-government parties to see that aid gets through, however assistance is currently only reaching a fraction of those in need.

"Despite the security difficulties, UNHCR has been working to scale up its operations," Edwards said. "Since the start of 2013 we have had aid deliveries to Deir Ezzor, Dara'a, Raqqah, Idlib, and Hama. Last year we added to our existing presences in Damascus, Aleppo and Al-Hassakeh with new facilities in Al-Nabek and Homs. This has brought us closer to many of the centres of concentration of displaced and affected populations."

Edwards added that UNHCR's goal was to deliver relief items to at least 1 million people by June 2013. As of Wednesday last week, the agency had delivered relief items to more than 437,000 people in some of the most affected provinces, including Aleppo, Al-Hassakeh, Raqqah, Damascus, Dara'a, Deir Ezzor, Hama and Idlib.

The aid includes bedding, shelter, household items and clothes. The items were delivered directly by UNHCR or by local NGOs and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). Four convoys, one organized jointly with other UN agencies, have taken place to the north since the beginning of the year.

The most recent delivery went from Damascus to Tal Abiyad in Raqqah province. Seven trucks loaded with 130 tons of aid arrived on March 18. The trucks were organized by the SARC. The World Food Programme also sent four trucks with 5,000 food baskets.

Financial assistance remains an important priority in Syria. Last year, UNHCR gave financial support to 14,607 families in Damascus, Al-Hassakeh and Al-Nabek. This year 6,400 families have received financial assistance in Damascus. Plans to expand the programme to Homs have been delayed because of insecurity, but UNHCR hopes to begin the programme in the coming weeks.

The working arrangement is that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) coordinates relief efforts inside Syria. UNHCR leads three sectors: distribution of household items; shelter support; and community services (including home visits, running community centres and manning hotlines). The agency participates in three other groups: education, health, and water and sanitation.

The 70,000 refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia still living in Syria are facing the same hardship and dangers as their Syrian hosts. UNHCR remains committed to assisting and protecting this vulnerable population, many of whom have limited coping mechanisms, particularly as they lose access to jobs and are displaced due to the conflict.

Edwards said that UNHCR had received reports of threats against refugees and abductions. An Afghan refugee was killed when a mortar shell hit his home.

"Refugee children are particularly vulnerable, some suffering psychosocial issues with many having dropped out of school," he said, adding that assistance to refugees included financial support and help with access to health care. "Resettlement for refugees . . . is a top priority for those that cannot consider going home," he said, citing people from Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan as well as Palestinians.

At least 76,000 Iraqi nationals have returned home since the beginning of the conflict in Syria despite the fact that, for many, the conditions back home are far from ideal. Upon arrival in Iraq and registration with the authorities, UNHCR provides returnees with household items and one-time cash assistance of US$400 per family and US$200 for single people. By the end of January, 3,116 households (18,815 people) had benefitted from this assistance since last November.