Hospitals, markets and bakeries have been hit, scores of civilians are killed and injured almost daily, and doctors themselves have become targets in escalating fighting and airstrikes in Syria, reportedly by the Government and its allies, a senior United Nations relief official reported today, voicing outrage.
In the first briefing to the Security Council since the 15-member body on Friday gave the UN an enhanced role in shepherding the opposing sides to talks for a political transition, endorsing a timetable for a ceasefire, a new constitution and elections, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Kyung-wha Kang described a litany of the ongoing attacks against civilians. Also briefing was the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, who said the rate at which Syrians were fleeing the country "shows how unbearable things have become.”
“This loss of innocent lives and wanton indiscriminate destruction of populated areas is an outrage, and those responsible must be held accountable,” said Ms. Kang, referring specifically to Idlib in the north of the country, where six airstrikes hit a busy market place, several public buildings and residential areas yesterday, killing 43 people.
The escalation of attacks in the north of the country, reportedly by Syrian and allied forces, is such that doctors working to save injured civilians “fear that the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems are no longer the shield of protection that they must be,” she added.
“Since the start of this crisis (nearly five years ago), Physicians for Human Rights have documented 336 attacks on at least 240 medical facilities and the death of 697 medical personnel. These attacks are flagrant violations of international humanitarian law and an affront to the core of our shared humanity that must be guarded – caring for the wounded and the sick,” she said.
“I plead with the parties to the conflict to ensure the protection of health facilities, workers and patients under international humanitarian law. Similarly the removal of surgical supplies and trauma kits from convoys by the Syrian Government must end,” she underscored.
She reiterated the call Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made after the Council adopted its resolution on Friday that the International Syria Support Group, comprised of the Arab League, the European Union, the United Nations, and 17 countries, including the United States and Russia, should apply the necessary pressure on the parties to immediately stop indiscriminately using weapons against civilians, including barrel bombs.
“For nearly five years, we have watched as Syria sank deeper and deeper into violence and brutality. And yet, no words can do justice to the despair and devastation that millions of Syrians experience every day,” Ms. Kang said, recalling UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien’s visit to the country earlier this month.
During his mission, he visited the Al-Waer neighbourhood of Homs city where a ceasefire has allowed the humanitarian community to deliver aid to all 60,000 people there for the first time in 11 months.
“We are encouraged by this but reiterate that humanitarian access should be unhindered and sustained at all times, and not be made conditional on negotiated agreements,” Ms. Kang said, stressing that 4.5 million people live in hard-to-reach areas, nearly 400,000 of them besieged.
From September to November due to access restrictions and insecurity, the UN and its partners accessed only 32 per cent of the hard-to-reach locations, only around one per cent of the besieged population received food aid, and less than one per cent health care.
“This is simply unacceptable. We once again call upon the Syrian authorities to approve the 47 pending inter-agency convoy requests and allow convoys previously agreed in principle to proceed,” Ms. Kang said. “I also call on non-State armed groups, as well as listed terrorist groups, to allow the deliveries they are preventing from proceeding.”
She noted that despite extremely challenging circumstances, humanitarian partners continue to reach millions of people every month with life-saving assistance, but much more is needed, with the Humanitarian Response Plan for 2016 seeking nearly $3.2 billion to provide life-saving aid to the 13.5 million people in need inside the country. Some four million others have fled to refugee camps in neighbouring countries or to Europe.
“As 2015 draws to an end, the response inside the country is only 42 per cent funded,” she stressed. “I call on all partners to contribute generously towards these plans in preparation for the upcoming conference, ‘Supporting Syria and the Region, London 2016.’ Only with your help can we assist those in need inside Syria and in the neighbouring countries.”
In his remarks, Mr. Guterres said that nearly one million people have arrived by boat in Europe this year, more than 50 per cent of them Syrians. His Office, (UNHCR) just published a survey of over 1,200 of them, and the findings confirmed something the agency has long suspected: Syria is experiencing a massive brain drain.
“Some 86 per cent of those we interviewed have a secondary education. Almost half have gone to university. One can only imagine the disastrous consequences of such an exodus on the future post-conflict reconstruction of Syria,” he said, adding that the fact that two-thirds of the Syrians interviewed in Greece by UNHCR had left the country in 2015 – with 37 per cent coming directly from Syria after just a few days in transit – shows how unbearable things have become.
“That is why it is so urgent to achieve the ceasefire foreseen in the Vienna talks and in the recent Security Council resolution,” he said, also calling for more international support to refugees and to their hosts, and humanitarian assistance has to match the level of the needs. Massive investments are required in support of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey to prevent refugees from slipping further into destitution and to help governments cope with the increased pressure on health and education, water, electricity and other public infrastructure.
“We need a ‘New Deal’ between the international community – Europe in particular – and Syria's neighbours. It is clear that without education for their children, access to the labour market and protection against poverty, more and more Syrians will see themselves left with only one option – moving on,” Mr. Guterres emphasized.
Telling the Council that he strongly supports the idea of a massive programme for resettlement and other forms of admission to European countries and further afield, one that is large enough to help put an end to the tragedies of the Aegean Sea and the chaotic movement through the Balkans, he warned that “ if things continue as they are right now, I fear not only for the lives of refugees, but for the future of European asylum, as restrictive measures are already spreading all around, like a virus that also risks contaminating other parts of the world.”