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Syria: UN relief chief urges Security Council to extend cross-border operations ahead of conference

29 Jun 2020

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Khair Al-Sham camp, Idleb, Syria, 13 March 2020. Credit: OCHA

In a briefing to the United Nations Security Council today on the humanitarian situation in Syria, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock noted that even as the number of recorded COVID-19 infections remains low, the threat of a broader outbreak is aggravating the economic downturn and constraining the humanitarian response, which could have serious consequences across the whole region, not just in the country.

“Syria’s health system is not prepared for a large-scale outbreak,” Mr. Lowcock said. “We need only to look at Yemen to see how quickly COVID-19 can collapse a health system devastated by years of war.”

Within this context, Mr. Lowcock briefed the Security Council on the human cost of the economic downturn; the situation in north-west Syria; and the humanitarian response under way from within Syria, including assistance delivered cross-line.

The UN humanitarian chief emphasized that the prices of food, medicines, fuel and other essentials commodities are “soaring” across Syria, while the volatile exchange rate has seen the Syrian pound lose more value in the past six months than in the first nine years of the crisis. 

He said that food prices have consequently reached unprecedented levels. Market monitoring by the World Food Programme (WFP) shows a 200 per cent increase in the price of the national average food basket since last year. Some 9.3 million people are estimated to be food insecure – the highest level ever recorded in Syria.

“Across the country, people who have struggled through nine years of devastating conflict are telling us that they have now reached breaking point,” Mr. Lowcock said.

Turning to the situation in the north-west, the UN humanitarian chief said that an estimated 2.8 million people – 70 per cent of the region’s population – require humanitarian assistance. Mass-displacement of almost 1 million people earlier this year and new economic hardships, aggravated by the regional impact of COVID-19, have left civilians in the north-west among the country’s most vulnerable people.

Mr. Lowcock noted that as part of cross-border operations authorized by the Security Council under resolution 2504, some 1,781 aid trucks crossed the border from Turkey into north-west Syria in May.

Most of that cross-border aid is food – and it is enough for 1.3 million people every month. More and more children and infants, however, are arriving at nutrition centres showing signs of chronic and acute malnutrition. Mothers arriving at the centres say they have long been priced out of food staples and medicines in the markets, leaving them reliant on the food packages delivered across the border.

“So I want to be clear that the current levels of assistance delivered across the border are far from sufficient. The north-west continues to suffer a major humanitarian crisis. The cross-border operation needs to be scaled up further,” Mr. Lowcock stressed.

“A failure to extend the cross-border authorization would sever the UN operation currently under way. It would end the UN food deliveries and the support to nutrition centres. It would cause suffering and death,” he added.

Mr. Lowcock said that as UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in his latest report, efforts have been, and will continue to be, made to deliver cross-line assistance into the north-west. “But at the moment it is simply impossible to replicate with cross-line assistance what is being delivered through the cross-border operation,” he said.

Planning has progressed for a cross-line mission to Idleb, which has been on hold since April, when UN movements into the north-west were paused due to concerns over COVID-19 transmission. Operational planning has now resumed and is proceeding with careful consideration of these risks, as well as the complex security environment. A concept of operations is being finalized to share with the parties, the UN humanitarian chief said.

Mr. Lowcock noted that as UN Secretary-General António Guterres stated in his review of cross-line and cross-border assistance this past February, and as he reiterated in his sixty-seventh report on the humanitarian situation in Syria: a combination of more cross-border and cross-line access is required to sustain levels of humanitarian assistance into the north-east, and preferably increase that assistance.

“Should adequate steps not be taken for cross line deliveries to work effectively, and in the absence of consent from the Government of Syria or neighbouring countries to use border crossings into the north-east that are safe and logistically feasible, the Security Council would need to authorize the United Nations and its implementing partners to use additional crossings,” he said.

Mr. Lowcock’s briefing to the Security Council comes on the eve of the fourth Supporting Syria and the Region conference in Brussels tomorrow.

As part of efforts in preparation for the event, the heads of the UN’s humanitarian, development and refugee agencies urged international donors to redouble their commitment to Syrians and the region.

They also called for solidarity with countries hosting record levels of refugees and continued support to the UN’s programmes that are saving lives, protecting vulnerable families, building resilience across Syria and the region and pursuing durable solutions to end civilian suffering.

The appeal comes with additional urgency as the impact of COVID-19 wreaks havoc on economies and threatens to further destabilize the region.

Governments and other donors are expected to announce pledges of support for a US$3.8 billion appeal for the UN and partners’ humanitarian work inside Syria and a $6.04 billion refugee and resilience plan for countries in Syria’s neighbourhood. The plans are currently 30 per cent and 19 per cent funded, respectively.

Inside Syria, more than 11 million people need aid and protection.

Half the pre-war population – more than 13.2 million people – remain displaced inside and outside the country. This is the largest refugee crisis in the world with 6.6 million refugees scattered throughout the world. The vast majority – more than 5.5 million refugees – live in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

“The conflict in Syria has lasted almost as long as the First and Second World War combined,” Mr. Lowcock said. “A whole generation of children has known nothing but hardship, destruction and deprivation. Nearly 2.5 million children are out of school. The economy is crumbling, millions remain displaced, and more and more people are going hungry.”

“The world can do something about that tomorrow. Generous pledges, quickly paid out, can help the UN and humanitarian NGOs stay the course in Syria and get people the food, shelter, health services and protection they urgently need,” he added.

As he closed his briefing to the Security Council, Mr. Lowcock emphasized that Security Council resolution 2504 expires in 11 days.

“I will close by reiterating the Secretary-General’s and my own numerous appeals to extend the cross-border authorization,” he said. “The cross-border authorization provides a lifeline for millions of civilians in north-west Syria. We cannot reach them without it.”