‘We need improvement’ on humanitarian access: UN envoy for Syria

The Russian-Syrian airstrikes caused dozens of civilian casualties in Homs on Thursday. File photo

GENEVA (UN) – The day after a new round of intra-Syrian talks began in Geneva, the United Nations envoy mediating a solution to the crisis reported Thursday on the latest humanitarian assessment, stressing the need for improvement amidst a picture that is frustrating but not “completely negative.” 

“I cannot deny that everyone in the meeting was disappointed,” UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura told the press, referring to a meeting of the Humanitarian Access Task Force, set up to ensure access and the delivery of aid. 

“Indeed, many are actually frustrated by the lack of new convoys, in particular in some areas which, as you know, have been identified as besieged areas,” he added. 

Humanitarian aid has reportedly not yet been able to reach Douma, Daraya, and east Harasta, while more is needed in Madaya, Zabadani, Kefraya and Fouah.

“The picture should not be completely negative, in the sense that, while we have to, and we must, insist on reaching these hard-to-reach or besieged areas, there is still a lot happening in Syria,” he stressed, noting that 5.8 million Syrians have been reached by the UN, its partners and other non-governmental organizations, as well as by the Government in some areas under its control. 

In addition, he insisted that one million Syrians were reached in January and February with non-food items, and 6.8 million have been reached every month with assistance on water and sanitation. 

“But that doesn’t take away what I just said at the beginning: disappointment, frustration indeed, particularly in this period we are expecting incremental improvement,” Mr. de Mistura said, adding that the meetings of the taskforce must insist for progress to be made, and not act passively.

Highlighting “some good news,” the envoy underlined the recent airdrops in Deir ez-Zor saying: “The World Food Programme has been able to succeed with three airdrops in succession in the last one on Thursday – 26 pallets, which have all reached Deir ez-Zor, and the distribution is likely to start through SARC [Syrian Arab Red Crescent] very soon,” he said. 

The next airdrops are also likely to include not only food items but medical items. So far 55 tons have been airdropped with technical and practice assistance from Canada, the United States and Russia, which Mr. de Mistura said is “quite encouraging.” Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom have also provided financial support. 

The envoy also said he raised the issue of medical items with authorities in the Syrian capital, Damascus, who assured him they would allow all items except for surgical ones, atropine and anxiety pills. Upon request, caesarean surgical items may be allowed. 

“We are still concerned about surgical items, which are not just for military use, but they can be and should be used for children for instance, which happen to be falling through the rubbles of incidents and would require this,” Mr. de Mistura said. 

Regarding the possibility of a “massive medical evacuation” for up to 500 people, the envoy said he regrets it has not happened: “There seems to have been too much concentration of a reciprocity […] So the proposal is, if you do have a case of medical emergency, to allow it to be evacuated and when there is one on the other side that would be at least equivalent. In theory we should never discuss this, it is a duty to do that. But if this is all blocked by reciprocity, let’s at least have a much more creative reciprocity for the sake of saving lives,” he stressed. 

Meanwhile, UN Resident Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria Yacoub El Hillo, told UN Radio he was concerned that over the past two weeks, the frequency of “ruptures” and violations of the cessation of hostilities had increased.

Asked what the most pressing humanitarian needs are in Syria, he replied: “Everything. This year there are 13.5 million Syrians who are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance and protection. And this is from vaccinating [children under the age of five] to providing shelter for the displaced, as well as food and clean water, education, healthcare, job opportunities, and support for families that have been displaced more than once because of the nature of this conflict.” 

These are the things “keeping us busy every day,” Mr. El Hillo continued, noting that while Syria was once well on its way to becoming a high-middle-income country, today, more than 80 per cent of the people are poor, living on less than $2 a day. “That’s why the needs are huge. And because of the length of this crisis, their ability to cope has also been highly eroded,” he added.

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