Syria crisis a ‘blot on our collective conscience’ UN relief chief says, urging sustained aid access, funding

Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien visits communities in the Al Waer neighbourhood of Homs, Syria, where the parties recently agreed a cessation of hostilities. Photo: OCHA/Bassam Diab

14 December 2015 – Speaking from Damascus today, the top United Nations relief official said the situation in Syria is “unacceptable,” with nearly 13.5 million Syrians in need of some form of assistance, and he urged the international community to generously support the UN’s $3.2 billion humanitarian operations plan for the war-torn country.

“I came to Syria to find ways to improve the ongoing response efforts and to ensure that those in need across the country will receive the assistance they so desperately require,” said the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien, at the end of his second visit to Syria.

He told reporters that the UN and its partners have finalized the Humanitarian Response Plan for 2016, which requires $3.2 billion for 13.5 million Syrians; including nearly 6.5 million who are internally displaced, about 72 per cent of the population that is without access to drinking water and an estimated two million children who are out of school.

“This situation is unacceptable; a blot on our collective conscience,” underscored Mr. O’Brien, who is also the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator.

He went on to say that during his trip, which began on 12 December, he had been able to visit Homs City, where he crossed conflict lines to visit communities in the Al Waer neighbourhood where the parties recently agreed a cessation of hostilities.

“This agreement has allowed the UN and our partners, chiefly the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to deliver, during my visit, life-saving assistance to communities who have not received aid since January 2015,” said Mr. O’Brien.

Satisfied with the accessibility to Al Waer, he noted however that people in many other similar places across Syria continue to be deprived of assistance and suffer from the consequences of the “brutal” crisis and added that sustained humanitarian access must reach all people in need, “with or without local agreement.”

Some 4.5 million people continue to live in areas that are hard to reach for the humanitarian community. Almost 400,000 of those are besieged. Between January and November, the UN and partners were only able to reach 1.5 per cent people in need in besieged areas, and seven per cent of the people in need in hard to reach areas, Mr. O’Brien explained, adding that allowing access to humanitarian supplies is the obligation of all those who are party to the conflict.

On his visit to a children’s hospital in Al Waer, he said that the severely damaged facility now treats patients of all ages, and after talking to the injured, he “witnessed first-hand the resilience of the Syrian people.”

Mr. O’Brien said he also visited a former school which is now being used as a shelter by 45 displaced families. The school had been had been hit by mortars many times, severely injuring some children during the attacks.

“The situation remains fragile and even during my visit a car bomb exploded near the al-Zahra area in Homs City, a devastating attack that was claimed by [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL], killing and injuring many innocent people,” said Mr. O’Brien.

Highlighting the aerial attacks that reportedly hit a school in Douma, Eastern Ghouta yesterday and the mortar attack in the Ain Karsh area of Damascus city, which killed a child and injured several others, he said this is a “tragic reminder of the urgency of finding a political solution and securing a nation-wide cease-fire.”

“Such indiscriminate attacks are unacceptable and we must do our utmost to protect innocent citizens, including women and children, against such atrocities. I continue to call on all parties to respect international humanitarian and human rights laws,” he stressed.

Further, Mr. O’Brien said that he had constructive meetings with the Governor of Homs, Talal Barazi, and local community leaders, to discuss ways to build on the cessation of hostilities agreement in order to enable relief workers to reach more people in need, regardless of where they are, while emphasizing the importance of implementing the next phases of the reconciliation agreement.

Upon meeting the President of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), Dr. Abdul Rahman Al Attar, Mr. O’Brien saluted the huge efforts and courage of SARC and their volunteers in delivering life-saving aid and persevering in the challenging and often dangerous circumstances in which we all operate, and added that they are a “valued partner” in humanitarian operations in Syria.

“Despite the challenges on the ground the humanitarian community continues to reach millions of people in Syria every month. However, much more is needed […] Syrians need our support more than ever and we must not let them down,” stressed Mr. O’Brien.

Lastly, he said that there is a desperate need for additional funds in order to continue humanitarian efforts and he expressed hope that the international community will pledge generously at the London Syria Conference on 4 February 2016.


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