Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Syria: Aid workers cautious over Syria

Photo: Jutta Hinkannen/OCHA. The city of Homs in Syria has been extensively damaged by government shelling of “terrorists” (March 2012)

Source: IRIN

AMMAN, 19 March 2012 (IRIN) - A government-led assessment of Syrian areas affected by unrest began yesterday with a visit to the restive city of Homs, heavily devastated by nearly a month of shelling.

Technical staff from various UN agencies, including the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as from the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) are accompanying the mission, which is meant to visit the governorates of Homs, Hama, Tartous, Lattakia, Aleppo, Dayr Az Zor, rural Damascus and Dera’a.

The government did not specify which cities would be visited within those governorates, meaning there is no guarantee that the aid workers will be able to access the most devastated areas.

“This obviously falls short of the proposal for unhindered humanitarian access. It’s not what we asked for,” said Amanda Pitt, spokesperson of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). “But it does give us an opportunity to collect information, to see for ourselves what the situation is in places and what the needs might be.”

It may also grant them access to areas even the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - the two aid organizations with the most access in Syria - have not been able to reach.

In opposition-held areas where the government may not be able to go, humanitarians expect to be able to enter anyway, with the help of the SARC or local religious leaders. They also expect to mobilize an immediate response if they identify urgent needs. UN and OIC aid workers will also come to their own conclusions and analysis from what they see.

“We’re participating in good will because we really didn’t have a choice,” one aid worker said.

The hope is that this initial assessment will prepare groundwork for other technical missions on more specific issues, including water and sanitation, or specific groups of vulnerable people, like drought-hit farmers.

Already, “there is some movement” by the government, Pitt said, in granting visas to the specialists to enter the country to support the humanitarian team on the ground.

The government’s refusal to grant full humanitarian access has put the UN in a difficult position - under great pressure to provide relief to the increasing number of people affected by a growing crisis, but restricted by what it can do under international law without the government’s permission.

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos spent two days in the Syrian capital Damascus on 7-9 March, lobbying high-level government officials to allow aid workers to go “where they want, when they want, to provide humanitarian help,” Pitt told IRIN from New York.

After Amos’ visit, the Syrian government responded that it needed “more time” to consider her proposals, Pitt said.

Instead, it offered to conduct this assessment - a move that falls far short of what aid workers have demanded.

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Jakob Kellenberger, warned yesterday that people in areas affected by the unrest have been suffering for several months and that the humanitarian situation could deteriorate further.

The government has cracked down violently on anti-government protests that began more than one year ago. Since then, the opposition has become increasingly armed, leading to a state of near civil war and more than 7,500 dead - mostly civilians, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Kellenberger again called for a daily cessation in fighting to allow aid workers to evacuate the wounded and deliver relief items. OIC Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu made a similar call on 17 March, saying: “We cannot reach hospitals, displaced people and those in need.”

The proposal for a humanitarian “pause” - in other words, a temporary, but regular ceasefire for a pre-determined period of time is distinct from a humanitarian corridor: a “safe” geographical area that would have to be secured militarily.

While it continues to lobby for full unhindered access - as Amos put it in a 15 March statement, “there is no time to waste” - the UN has been delivering aid through local partners, like the Red Crescent. WFP, for example, is delivering food to 100,000 people made vulnerable by the crisis through SARC. UNICEF and WHO are similarly using SARC and other local partners to get aid in.

On 14 March, ICRC and SARC were able to visit the towns of Rastan, Talbiseh and Al Zaafaraneh, in Homs Province, to assess the need for humanitarian action. They found 12,000 people displaced by recent fighting in need of mattresses, blankets, food, baby formula, basic medicines and vital medication for chronic illnesses.

“Given that tens of thousands of people may have been displaced from Baba Amr alone, we need to be able to see what people really need and where they are so that we can flesh out the plan,” Pitt said.

Syrian aid groups estimate that the crisis has displaced as many as 200,000 people within the country, in addition to tens of thousands of others who have fled beyond its borders.

WHO has received requests from local NGOs for life-saving medicines and trauma kits, among other things. Syrian authorities have granted WHO permission to conduct an assessment of hospitals and primary healthcare facilities in the governorates of Dera’a, rural Damascus, Homs and Dayr Az Zor, the organization said in an update.

The UN has been working on a three-month response plan, and will be making an appeal for funds to help the needy inside Syria, but the “missing link” has been an assessment that would confirm the suspected needs.

This mission may not be enough to satisfy donors, aid workers said.

OCHA is looking at allocating about US$10 million, through its Central Emergency Response Fund, for emergency projects within Syria.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) will be launching a separate appeal for funds as early as this week to respond to the needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

According to ECHO, the European Commission’s humanitarian aid arm, 20 million euros have already been pledged globally for humanitarian efforts inside Syria and in the neighbouring countries that are hosting its refugees.

Pitt stressed the need for calls for humanitarian access to remain independent from political discussions by UN member states and bodies. “If humanitarian actors are not perceived as neutral and impartial, it’s impossible for us to help those in need.”