This week’s media headlines about the Syrian crisis have focused on a walk-out by the Syrian delegation at the Non-Aligned Movement summit, after Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi called the regime “oppressive”; and a TV interview in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he needed more time to win the war.
But the humanitarian situation of hundreds of thousands of people in need of assistance inside Syria has been - as usual, aid workers would say - largely neglected.
As violence spreads to previously unaffected areas, internal displacement has reached unprecedented levels. Three million people are in need of food assistance or agricultural support. Many more have been affected by a crumbling economy and a lack of social services, especially health care. Meanwhile, funding for humanitarian aid has not matched the strong rhetoric on Syria in the international community. .
Increasingly, aid workers feel it is time to speak out. .
“We have kept silent for quite a while. The political debate has been predominant,” said Radhouane Nouicer, the UN’s top humanitarian official in Syria. “We need to remind people that beyond the political debate, there are also people who are suffering and who are not having their needs met.”
Here are excerpts of IRIN’s interview with Nouicer, the UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria.
IRIN: Give us an update on the humanitarian situation.
RN: People have to realize that the situation has further deteriorated in recent weeks and that the violence has spread and intensified. Areas which used to be rather safe have become part of the war zone, like Aleppo and even Damascus… We are estimating the number of internally displaced people to be 1.2 million. This comes in addition to the people who have been affected even if they have not been displaced: affected by the war; by the problems; by the non-functioning public services; the unemployment; the miserable conditions that are prevailing. I would highlight particularly the [lack of] medical services, hygiene, water and sanitation, basic shelter and basic household items.
IRIN: What kind of assistance is reaching the people?
RN: We keep trying to scale up our activities. We are doing more than we used to do 2-3 months ago. The World Food Programme (WFP) went from 500,000 beneficiaries to 850,000 in August, and we are planning to reach 1.5 million people in the month of September.
Mattresses, blankets and other household items, as well as cash assistance for some families, have now reached over 250,000 people. The World Health Organization’s assistance has reached more than half a million people. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has reached a similar number with vaccinations or with food for children, and other types of assistance.
The positive element in this is that there are more NGOs - eight international NGOs and over 40 national NGOs - now associated with the humanitarian response and trying to make a little difference in the life of the affected populations.
IRIN: Previously, the UN had complained about bureaucratic slowdowns, government red tape, a lack of access that made it difficult to adequately respond to the needs. Has the government fulfilled its promises to ease those restrictions and issue more visas to international aid workers?
RN: The government has become more receptive to the concept that there is indeed a humanitarian crisis. They have been more receptive in recent weeks and even more engaged. We have organized many meetings with the representatives of the different ministries involved in the humanitarian situation and we have been allowed to enter into some kind of association with more local NGOs.
There is a security problem which is hampering the [aid] convoys. This is a reality, but that does not only fall on the government, but also on the rules and constraints of the UN in handling UN convoys. Sometimes, the road itself is not safe enough and convoys have to be deferred or the route has to change.
There are pockets where live hostilities are taking place and that indeed is off our limits. We cannot enter. Nobody can, unless the hostilities cease. Otherwise, there are many areas under so-called opposition control, which are accessible and which receive their rations as planned.
There is space for more flexibility. We still need clearance to send convoys. That is not really very problematic, but we would have been much happier without it. Still, the mechanisms are in place to send as much aid as we can.
IRIN: The UN has requested US$180 million to respond to the needs in Syria. That appeal is only half met. How big of a handicap is the lack of funding?
RN: We have been able to really scale up in terms of food distribution, but the other sectors are still crippled by the lack of funding. In addition to the procedures and the insecurity, you have the problem of funding, which is a big handicap for the health sector, for the shelter sector, for the cash assistance to destitute families, for education and sanitation. That is still a major problem for us.
IRIN: Why has humanitarian funding failed to match the strong rhetoric on Syria in the international community?
RN: I keep asking the same question to donors. It is legitimate for the donors to also ask us - the UN - to enlarge the donor base and seek donations and contributions from other states. So far, we have failed… and we keep relying on the traditional donors - it is a fact of life.
This operation has been very much politicized. The predominance of the political debate has maybe made many countries not pay enough attention to the humanitarian conditions. That’s my only interpretation.
We kept calling on other states [to donate]. The reactions have not been positive. We still keep hope and we continue our demarches through direct contacts and meetings. We keep hope that very soon they will join in and help. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation is now mobilized to join the humanitarian team inside Syria - working on the basis of the funding that has been collected during Ramadan in some Gulf states.
IRIN: Some donors said they needed assurances that the UN could deliver effectively and with accountability, given the challenges of the Syrian context. Have you proven yourself in that regard.
RN: We have provided enough evidence that there is a possibility to deliver; there is a possibility to send convoys and to monitor the distribution; to identify and assess the needs; and to scale up the operations. Now we need more fuel to go further with this.
IRIN: In recent days, Turkey has said repeatedly that it cannot accept more than 100,000 refugees, and has even called for camps within Syria to ease the burden on Turkey. What will happen if neighbouring countries stop taking in refugees?
RN: This is a new concept - that there could be a ceiling on the number of people that you can or cannot accept. One has to remember that Syria has hosted more than one million Iraqis and 500,000 Palestinians. [So Turkey’s stance] is a quite surprising concept. If it becomes a fact that neighbouring countries stop accepting Syrian refugees - and there is no sign of that at this stage; we haven’t seen anything of that kind; the borders remain open on all fronts - but if that happens and people are forced, to some extent, to remain within their territory, there must be an international mechanism put in place to assist them. That mechanism does not exist for the time being and the UN has nothing to do with that for the time being, because we cannot violate international law and enter Syria from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and help people in areas not in control of the government. We are still working with a sovereign state. We are an international organization that has to abide by international law.
IRIN: What would that mechanism look like?
RN: The mechanism - if agreed upon by all parties involved - would be a type of cross-border mechanism, which means you bring assistance to people inside Syria. It has been put in motion in many other situations, but it must be done in a legal mannerwithin certain parameters. I’m talking about a hypothesis where people are stuck at the border and cannot enter the [neighbouring] countries. We are not there yet. That was the case in Turkey for a few days, while it got more camps ready, but now it has been eased.