UN warns: operating space for humanitarian actors is shrinking in Syria

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A man reacts amidst damage from what activists said was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the al-Katerji district in Aleppo. File photo: Reuters

GENEVA (UN) – The top United Nations relief official said on Friday he remains extremely concerned about the welfare of civilians across Syria, who he said continue to face “horrific deprivation and violence,” particularly those trapped in besieged areas. 

Briefing the UN Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria, especially on critical access issues, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien said he is concerned about people trapped in the towns of Mare’a and Sheikh Issa, as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) forces advance, and for the people in eastern Aleppo, and is “appalled” at the mortar attack on the Mseifra camp for internally displaced people in Dar’aa Governorate that occurred this past weekend. 

“I told the Council that the operating space for humanitarian actors is shrinking as violence and attacks across Syria increase; and that recent attacks are creating new humanitarian emergencies and compounding the challenges in existing emergency areas,” Mr. O’Brien said after consultations with the body. 

He also warned members of the Council that attacks on medical facilities and health personnel have continued in the past few days, despite the recent resolution passed by the Council, and despite the expressions of concern and commitments to action. 

“This is unacceptable,” Mr. O’Brien emphasized. 

He also reminded the Council that needs are the most acute in besieged locations. 

“It is there that the parties to the conflict actively breach the basic laws of war. While humanitarians press for access, there remain areas where access continues to be denied,” he said. 

During his briefing, Mr. O’Brien stressed that the only sustainable solution is a complete lifting of all sieges. 

“Besiegement is not a natural or necessary consequence of conflict, it is a deliberate policy of parties, and one which can be undone if the political will to do so can be mustered,” he said. 

Despite the escalating challenges to humanitarian operations, millions of Syrians in need are being reached through regular and cross-border assistance each month, Mr. O’Brien said, noting that he was able to report that just today a UN inter-agency convoy completed a delivery of desperately needed food for 45,000 civilians in Moadamiyah.

“We are slowly accessing more and more people – since January over 820,000 have had assistance, many of them more than once – but the progress, while encouraging, is far from enough,” he said. 

During the month of May, only two locations had been reached by land – East Harasta and Yarmouk – representing 20,000 people. This is only 3.4 per cent of the total besieged population of 592,700, he said. 

“While we continued to reach those in Deir ez-Zour through high-altitude airdrops, the one-off and inconsistent land access throughout May was simply not enough,” he said. 

He noted, however, that they had been able to reach 40 per cent of people in 14 of the 19 besieged locations, delivering vital supplies as well as assessing the needs of people and monitoring the impact of the response. 

Mr. O’Brien, who is also the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, highlighted that when aid workers entered Darayya on Wednesday, for the first time in four years, they encountered a “truly dismal situation.” People have acute medical needs and clearly do not have enough food, he stressed. 

Regarding the question of air bridges and air drops to be used for areas denied humanitarian access – which was the focus of the Council’s discussion today – Mr. O’Brien said his position remained firm and clear: “We need to see full approval of the June plan for humanitarian access.” 

“We need the consent of the Syrian Government and all necessary security guarantees, in order to conduct airdrops. We need all parties to allow freedom of movement for civilians and humanitarian access. Above all, we need the fighting to stop and a political solution to start,” he added. 

As such, the firm action and political resolve of the international community was necessary to break the impasse and ensure that people receive the life-saving aid and protection they need, Mr. O’Brien said. 

“As humanitarians, we can deliver humanitarian action – we can’t fix the politics or the root causes,” he said. 

Mr. O’Brien also urged all parties to the conflict to not just reflect on Islam’s core values of charity, mercy and peace as they entered the holy month of Ramadan, but to use that moment to apply the values to “improve the situation of those innocent civilians who suffer so terribly in this conflict.”

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