Almost seven years into the Syria conflict, I have this week seen first-hand the colossal toll that the brutal and sustained hostilities have taken.
Estimates suggest that hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, countless more are missing or detained, and five million have fled to other countries. Gross Domestic Product is less than half what it was before the war, and replacing destroyed infrastructure and housing will cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Almost 70 per cent of people now live in extreme poverty.
I have heard harrowing stories from people caught up in the conflict and violence that engulfed their communities. In Homs, I saw whole districts with row upon row of homes and businesses reduced to rubble.
And while things are now calmer in parts of the country where many people live, the fighting continues in other areas. Right now I am particularly concerned about the fate of the besieged people of East Ghouta, about whom my colleague the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights made an important statement yesterday. As the Secretary-General’s spokesman also said yesterday, the UN has received alarming reports that the only emergency medical center in Modira, in besieged Eastern Ghouta, has been damaged in an airstrike, rendering it inoperable. I am also concerned about reports of continuous shelling from Eastern Ghouta into Damascus city, with consequent civilian casualties. I am also deeply worried about civilians affected by the upsurge in violence in Idleb, and those trapped in horrendous conditions throughout the North East.
My mandate is to ensure humanitarian assistance and protection for everyone who needs it, in accordance with the long-established principles of independence, impartiality and neutrality which have been endorsed by all the Member States of the UN. People affected by the Syria crisis are entitled to help on the basis of need, regardless of any other considerations.
Agencies supported through the UN’s humanitarian response plan, which is developed and implemented through close discussion with the Syrian authorities, have reached an average of 7.5 million people across the country each month over the last year. These agencies have provided life-saving food and medical help, as well as support to sustain essential services including water and education. I saw some of this in Homs, and was encouraged by the cooperation between the authorities there and the United Nations in re-establishing medical services, creating shelters for displaced people, and working to clear the rubble and re-establish livelihoods.
The UN’s humanitarian response plan for Syria is one of the world’s largest sustained emergency aid efforts. It has been made possible by voluntary donations. They totalled US$1.7 billion in 2017, with the biggest contributions coming from the US, Germany, the UK, the European Commission on behalf of the member states of the EU, Canada, Norway, Japan and Denmark.
These assistance programmes have been implemented by thousands of aid workers. Most of them are Syrians and many are volunteers, working for the organisations of the UN, the Red Cross, NGOs and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. I pay tribute to their courage and selflessness, recognizing that many have lost their lives while assisting others. I also want particularly to recognise and applaud the work of my colleagues in the UN Humanitarian Country Team.
I have had detailed and open discussions about the crisis and what more needs to be done to reduce humanitarian suffering with the Government, and I have also met local authorities, the diplomatic community and humanitarian organisations.
On the basis of these discussions I am hoping soon to see a number of positive developments enabling us to sustain and improve the aid effort this year.
First, finalisation of the UN’s humanitarian response plan for 2018, for which we will be seeking $3.5 billion from donors to meet the needs of more than 13 million people in all parts of Syria.
Second, agreement to medical evacuation for hundreds of critically ill people trapped in besieged Eastern Ghouta, building on the initial evacuation of 29 patients, together with some of their family members, two weeks ago. People in other besieged areas should get the same help.
Third, agreement to three or four UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoys each week, including both food and medical supplies, across front lines to provide assistance to up to 2.5 million people in besieged and hard to reach areas. We need consistent, regular access to all people in need.
Fourth, agreement on UN supported aid convoys from Damascus to Rukban in south-eastern Syria. Fifth, more effective arrangements to enable the UN to support the work of Syrian NGOs, and to enable international NGOs to play the stronger role they can and are ready to play in relieving the suffering.
I discussed a number of other issues related to my mandate with the Government and others, including the review of the cross-border aid programmes from neighbouring countries into Syria which was commissioned last month by the Security Council (and which are approved under Security Council resolutions which recognize the territorial integrity of Syria).
I have agreed with the Government that we will continue our discussions, with a further meeting next week in New York and possibly subsequent meetings working towards another visit to Syria later in the year.
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