Syria: as harsh winter sets in, UN refugee agency begins aid airlifts from Iraq

Displaced people in Tartous, western Syria, are among the millions who have received UNHCR assistance. Photo: UNHCR

10 December 2013 – As the Syrian crisis passes the tragic 1,000-day mark, the United Nations refugee agency is working hard to meet the “immense needs” of desperate communities there, including across lines in conflict zones and in neighbouring countries, while also bracing for what meteorologists predict could be the region’s harshest winter in a century.

“This winter is forecast to be one of the harshest in 100 years, meteorologists are saying, and so UNHCR had started its winter programme earlier this year,” Amin Awad, the Syria Refugee Response Coordinator for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a press briefing in Geneva.

He said that ‘winterization kits’ have been distributed in Syria and surrounding countries, which the UN estimates to be struggling to meet the needs of some two million Syrian refugees. Insulation for tents, plastic sheeting and materials for water-proofing are among the items being distributed, and cash-for-fuel schemes have been implemented.

“UNHCR is ahead of schedule in many areas, on schedule in some areas, and behind schedule in areas where it did not have access,” Mr. Awad said, explaining that one of the most difficult-to-reach areas is Ashaka, Kamlishi in the north and northeast of Syria.

There, with permission from Damascus and the cooperation of the Iraqi Government, the UN and partners are working on an airlift of winter supplies from Erbil in Kurdistan to north and north-eastern Syria. “The price tag for the winterization programme is $195 million, of which $77 million would be earmarked for inside Syria,” Mr. Awad added.

As for the wider region, he said a snow storm is being forecast for the highest areas of Lebanon. The Ministry of Social Affairs has put out an alert and the Government has mobilized the military to help distribute relief items. Other challenges include the shift of populations from refugee camps to host communities. In response, UNHCR is providing support at three levels: for displaced communities, for local governments and for host communities.

Answering a question on access inside Syria given by the authorities, he said UNHCR now has more access than before, but sometimes even when access was authorized, some areas could not be reached due to fighting or other security incidents.

Explaining further, he said UNHCR staff had been shot at, harassed at checkpoints, experienced checkpoints moving, or a change in the personnel controlling those posts.

“UNHCR has to negotiate in every step of the way as it delivered … across lines,” he said, adding that the agency not only depends on the Government but also on collective goodwill, political awareness, support and orientation of the armed groups controlling diverse areas in Syria today.

As to the number of planned flights for the airlift, Mr. Awad said that it would involve seven flights over the next few days, with the possibility of more in the near future.

UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards said that since the start of 2013, UNHCR has brought relief supplies to more than three million people in Syria, including internally displaced persons (IDPs) and other vulnerable individuals. Although the Syrian crisis had passed the 1,000-day mark, the amount of aid UNHCR was able to deliver “is still nowhere near enough.”

UNHCR’s assistance has reached all of Syria’s 14 governorates, and each week saw a further approximately 250 trucks dispatched. Mr. Edwards announced that UNHCR has participated in more than 40 inter-agency cross-line missions into conflict zones. Over 35 per cent of UNHCR assistance has been to displaced persons in hard-to-reach or “hot spot” areas.

Aid deliveries are being managed by UNHCR with the support of local partners, he said, noting that recent supply efforts focused on helping civilian populations in Aleppo and Rural Damascus, the two governorates hosting the majority of IDPs. Aid had also been delivered to Idlib province, which was one of the most difficult areas to reach, and Hama province, where security previously prevented UNHCR from delivering any assistance between May and the end of November.

“Despite the scale of the efforts over the past months, the needs remain immense,” Mr. Edwards said, and insecurity routinely prevents access to many areas. With an estimated 6.5 million people now internally displaced and many more in need of help, UNHCR is working to provide additional support including healthcare (971,000 beneficiaries), legal protection and community services (155,000 beneficiaries), shelter rehabilitation (70 shelters) and financial assistance for the most vulnerable (175,000 beneficiaries).


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