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Urgently-needed UN relief aid reaches northern Syria for first time

Syrian refugees wait at a UNHCR distribution centre in Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan.
UNHCR/J. Tanner
Syrian refugees wait at a UNHCR distribution centre in Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan.

Urgently-needed UN relief aid reaches northern Syria for first time

The United Nations refugee agency this week delivered emergency winter aid for the first time to the Azzas area of northern Syria, where thousands of internally displaced people are living in makeshift tents, while cautioning that the situation in the country is “appalling.”

Staff from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) delivered 200 metric tons of tents and blankets from its central warehouse in Copenhagen to a civilian airport near Latakia on the Syrian coast, and then transported them by road, the agency’s spokesperson, Adrian Edwards, told reporters today in Geneva.

He added that the strictly humanitarian operation was possible thanks to the logistics support of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the agreement and cooperation of the Syrian Government, and facilitation by the Syrian National Coalition.

Also speaking to the press, the Director of UNHCR’s Middle East and North Africa Bureau, Yacoub El Hillo, said that while international assistance had been distributed before, this was the first time UNHCR – and perhaps the UN – had deployed its own national and international staff in that region.

Mr. El Hillo reiterated the urgency of the situation. “It is an appalling situation in Syria today, appalling, and all these figures are not capturing the true story of how Syria, the people, but also Syria the country, are facing systematic destruction.”

More than 60,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in early 2011. Recent months have witnessed an escalation in the conflict, which has also left more than 4 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

The Joint Special Representative of the UN and the League of Arab States for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who has been spearheading efforts to resolve the conflict, is attending a security conference in Munich, Germany, today. He is set to meet this evening with Moaz al-Khatib, a leader of the Syrian opposition, and hold bilateral meetings with United States Vice President Joseph Biden and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov tomorrow.

UNHCR also reported that the number of Syrians taking refuge in neighbouring countries reached 728,553 this week. Syrians are either registered as refugees or awaiting registration in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and North Africa, according to the agency.

In the western Syrian governorate of Homs, approximately 420,000 people – half of them children – need urgent humanitarian aid, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said today, following a recent inter-agency mission to the country.

“Children are the worst affected,” said UNICEF Emergency Specialist Mark Choonoo. “Most children I saw were showing signs of distress. It is extremely important that we reach as many of these children as possible with the support they need to cope with their traumatic experiences.”

The mission found that about 635,000 people in Homs have been displaced, some taking refuge in schools. Out of 1,500 schools in the governorate, 200 were damaged and 65 are sheltering children and families with dire consequences on the students’ attendance and quality of education.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned today that the shortage of medicines is becoming more critical, as is waste management and the availability of safe drinking water. Poor hygiene is increasing the risk of infectious diseases such as lice, hepatitis A and leishmaniasis, a sore-causing disease transmitted by sandflies.

Earlier this week, the international community pledged more than $1.5 billion to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians affected by the conflict in Syria, exceeding the initial target set by the UN and its partners.

Roughly one-third of the funds will be used for humanitarian work inside Syria, while the bulk of the appeal will go towards assisting those take refuge in neighbouring countries. The top four priorities inside the country include providing relief supplies such as food, healthcare and water to the most vulnerable; helping people who have fled their homes and the communities hosting them; supporting reconstruction of critical infrastructure; helping the poorest people avoid total destitution.