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25 February 2021

As Pandemic Rages on, Syria’s Children Face Graver Reality Than at Any Other Point of Conflict, International Aid Organization Official Tells Security Council

An unprecedented education crisis is unfolding in Syria, an expert from a major international aid agency warned the Security Council today, as she described how unaffordable food prices, chronic malnutrition and years of living in unsafe, unhygienic camps — now during a pandemic — likely means that many children will never return to school in their lifetimes.

Sonia Khush, Syria Response Director of Save the Children, said the conflict has permeated every aspect of children’s lives.  With the COVID-19 pandemic raging on, they face a graver reality than at any other point.  Spotlighting the convergence of poverty, violent conflict and now sickness and movement restrictions, she said that two out of every three children in northern Syria are out of school.  Meanwhile, attacks on schools continue, as does their use for military purposes.

She recalled first-hand accounts of students hiding under school desks as buildings all around them were bombed, as well as the widespread effects of the loss of teachers and a weakened education system on children’s lives.  Seventy‑nine per cent of teachers in Syria’s north-east region reported that their students have dropped out of school in order to work to help their families survive.  Many teachers themselves have continued to work without pay.  Now, amid the pandemic, the only safe way for many children to attend school is online; yet for most Syrians, Internet access remains out of reach.

She also described a protection crisis, noting that millions of people in northern Syria rely on humanitarian aid delivered largely through the United Nations cross-border mechanism.  In camps for internally displaced persons, food, water and hygiene needs are still not being met.  Many there live in flimsy tents, highly vulnerable to flooding and extreme cold.  Meanwhile, 1 in 8 children in Syria is now reported to be suffering from stunting due to chronic malnutrition, and millions go to bed hungry each night.  Teenaged boys remain vulnerable to recruitment into armed groups and girls are subject to early and forced marriage.

Even as COVID-19 has complicated those challenges, she emphasized that the tools for improving people’s lives have not changed:  the prompt delivery of humanitarian assistance — coupled with prioritized investments in education, health and psychosocial services, and stronger efforts to tackle the underlying causes of the conflict — remain the best options. 

Drawing attention to the plight of children in two camps of particular concern, she cited an alarming increase in security incidents in the Al Hol camp, which have disrupted the delivery of aid.  Save the Children continues to sound the alarm about the conditions in those camps, including cases of COVID-19, and recently made repeated attempts to draw the attention of Syrian authorities to the plight of a 9-year-old Azerbaijani girl in Al Hol who had fallen ill with treatable kidney disease.  Tragically, those attempts were not successful, and the girl died in January.

“Foreign children trapped in Syria are victims of the conflict, and must be treated as such,” she insisted, calling for their urgent repatriation to their countries or origin.  Seven years after the Council adopted resolution 2165 (2014), the need for assistance in Syria has only grown.  “In the middle of the worst pandemic the world has seen in 100 years, I would not know how to tell families in Syria that their access to humanitarian assistance has once again been limited,” she said, stressing that there remains no viable option to the cross-border delivery mechanism.

Reinforcing those appeals, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock stressed that parents are eating less so they can feed their children, and sending them to work instead of to school.  “Those who have run out of options are simply going hungry,” he warned.  More than half a million children under age five suffer from stunting because of chronic malnutrition.  These problems are particularly visible in the north-west and north-east, where an estimated 1 in 3 children suffers from stunting.

He reported on his conversations with a doctor who warned that half of the 80 beds at his hospital were occupied by malnourished children; five children had died as a result of malnutrition within the past two months.  Another pediatrician said she diagnoses malnutrition in up to 20 children a day, a problem that “has become so normal that parents cannot spot the signs in their own children”, he stressed.

The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 60 per cent of Syrians — 12.4 million people — lack access to safe, nutritious food, he said, noting that 4.5 million people have fallen into this category over the last year.  Syria’s fragile economy has suffered multiple shocks over the last 18 months.  Depreciation of the Syrian pound has been one of the most visible effects, with food prices jumping 200 per cent and purchasing power dwindling dramatically as result.  Average household expenses now exceed income by 20 per cent and millions of people are resorting to desperate measures to survive.

On the humanitarian front, he said all assistance that enters north-west Syria is delivered cross-border.  It supports 2.4 million people on average each month and the majority of that is delivered by the United Nations operation.  “When it comes to delivering life-saving aid to people in need, all channels should be made, and should be kept, available,” he stressed, noting that conditions in the north-west are worse than they were last July, when the Council extended its authorization for cross-border deliveries.

“A failure to extend the authorization in the future would trigger suffering and loss of life potentially on a very large scale.”

The United Nations continues to conduct a first cross-line mission into the north-west, with the aim on having regular cross-line missions that complement the ongoing cross-border missions.  A new operational plan is being developed to accommodate concerns of the parties involved.  The new proposal, which is currently being submitted, foresees a United Nations aid convoy crossing front lines and distributing aid in Atareb with involvement from local volunteers and other partners, the details of which and composition of whom must be agreed.

While his office has yet to reach an agreement with all parties concerned, he said:  “Let me be absolutely clear:  the United Nations is ready.  We have been ready for a long time.  What is needed now is wider agreement so that the first mission can go ahead.”

Turning to the north-east, he said increased tensions caused temporary disruptions in emergency assistance for hundreds of thousands of people and that the United Nations is working to scale up cross-line deliveries of medical supplies.  Noting that the World Health Organization (WHO) plans to deliver 50 tons of health supplies in the first quarter of 2021, he said expanding the reach of such cross-line deliveries will depend on expedited approvals and access to funding.  Only 6 per cent of public hospitals and no public health centres in the north-east are assessed to be fully functioning.

He also reported on the death of a humanitarian worker on 16 February, who was killed by a car bomb near a market in Al-Bab city in the north-west region, citing reports by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) of an uptick in attacks involving improvised explosive devices.

Updating on the United Nations strategic framework and the “Parameters and Principles” document, as requested by the Russian Federation, he said drafting of the document, which covers the 2021-2023 period, was initiated in 2020 and aims to reflect agreed operational activities of the United Nations country team, in response to the priorities of Syria, from which programmes and projects of United Nations agencies will be derived.

The programmatic priorities reflected in the current draft result from an extensive dialogue with national partners, and consultations are ongoing with all others to secure widespread support, including financing, for implementing the strategic framework.

To allow for further consultations, the United Nations sought a six-month extension to the framework, he said.  The Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator and country team are moving ahead in an open, transparent process, working with their national counterparts to deliver the best possible outcome.

As the drafting proceeds, the “Parameters and Principles” document is an internal guidance tool to target the operations of the United Nations country team in a complex context, he said.  It was formulated through a consultative process and shared throughout the system to provide assistance in a non-discriminatory manner.  It is aligned with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations and reinforces the humanitarian principles at the core of all United Nations work.

In the ensuing dialogue, delegates expressed their views about the need for cross-border aid deliveries, particularly given the dire plight of children in Syria, and offered recommendations for attenuating the suffering.

The representative of Ireland, also speaking on behalf of Norway, the other co-penholder on the Syria humanitarian file, voiced concern about the long‑standing and increasingly difficult conditions facing the country’s population.  “The misery endured by Syrian civilians is unimaginable for most of us,” she said, also sounding alarm about the impact of conflict-related sexual violence against children in Syria and calling on all parties to take immediate and specific steps to end it.  Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the parties must also enable humanitarian access and uphold ceasefires to allow medical humanitarian teams to undertake their vital functions, including safely delivering vaccines.  Condemning the ongoing violence which continues to kill and injure civilians, she noted that recent shelling and violence in the north-east, especially Ain Issa, has led 3,000 people to flee their homes — all while life‑saving humanitarian deliveries have been delayed due to bureaucratic impediments.  She also voiced concern about the deteriorating security situation at the Al Hol camp, where 23 people have reported been killed since 1 January.

The representative of Estonia said that it is unfortunate that permanent members of the Council have used their veto to block Council actions aimed at ending the tragedy.  One of those vetoes, cast in 2020, cut the cross-border mechanism in half, he said, adding that promises that cross-line deliveries would replace cross-border aid have fallen short.  That is especially worrying given a significant increase in food insecurity, the spread of COVID-19 and ongoing terrorist attacks.  Estonia looks forward to the fifth Brussels Conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region, he said, reiterating however the European Union’s position that there will be no funding for reconstruction unless a genuine and inclusive political transition in Syria, in line with resolution 2254 (2015), is firmly under way.

The representative of France said all must be done to put in place an immediate cessation of hostilities and humanitarian pause.  Describing air strikes in Idlib as alarming, he said the protection of civilians should be an “absolute priority”, especially as 900 medical workers have lost their lives since the conflict began.  Noting that France will continue to support mechanisms to fight impunity, he said the 24 February sentencing by a German court of a former security services agent of Syria for complicity in crimes against humanity is a first step.  With humanitarian needs in 2021 estimated to increase by 20 per cent, the need for unimpeded humanitarian access is imperative and he called on the Russian Federation to bring pressure to bear on the regime in this regard.  Further, guarantees must be in place to ensure the independent follow-up of any aid distribution.  The blocking of aid by the Syrian regime underscores the need to ensure the continued functioning of the cross-border aid mechanism.  He questioned how the refusal of 30 per cent of such missions can be explained, lamenting the closure of the Al Arabiya point and stressing that, as long as the regime continues to use blackmail for aid, people will continue to suffer.  France’s position on the lifting of sanctions remains unchanged, he added.

The representative of the United States, noting that a civil society leader invited to speak today was blocked from appearing by the Russian Federation, said the Council must ensure Syrian civilians have access to aid, including through cross-border operations.  He underscored the importance of honest conversations about Syrian suffering due to actions by the Assad regime and its enablers, stressing that every Syrian deserves assistance and that the United States has provided $2.2 billion since 2012.  Those in Rukban are living without medical aid, as Syria and the Russian Federation forbid deliveries, and he called on them to allow unhindered access, including by humanitarian envoys.  “This politicizing and weaponization of aid should outrage us all,” he emphasized.  It is the Council’s responsibility to expand humanitarian access in July when the cross-border mechanism is up for renewal.  Reauthorization for the United Nations to use Bab al Hawa crossing is the only way to ensure delivery of supplies, he said, noting that increased dependence on this one point in the last six months has led to food shortages and blocked access to sanitation and shelter, which, in turn, has led to higher incidence of illness.  The United Nations must be allowed unhindered access to all of Syria, he said, underscoring the critical role that greater cross-border access would play in the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.  He expressed grave concern that people in the north-east will be unjustly denied vaccines by the regime, noting that cross-line deliveries are routinely blocked or re-routed to regime-controlled areas.  The Council must ensure that other avenues are open when cross-line deliveries are not working.

The representative of the Russian Federation wondered why the Council had not heard from the briefer about the unlawful unilateral restrictions imposed by Western colleagues, which do not allow Syria to “turn a corner”.  Syrians need access to health care and education, as well as support in rebuilding war‑torn infrastructure.  Humanitarian assistance is not solving this problem, nor are humanitarian exemptions working, a point even raised by humanitarian workers.  Recalling that the United States President and United Kingdom Prime Minister received a letter in January — signed by more than 90 representatives of academia, religious leaders, journalists, the former envoys of the United Kingdom and Tunisia to Syria, as well as a current member of the United Kingdom House of Lords — stating that this form of collective punishment is “bringing Syria towards an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe”.  Because of sanctions, Syria cannot run its stock exchange, buy raw materials or medical equipment.

Nor have Western colleagues condemned the terrorists in control of Idlib, who have prevented United Nations humanitarian convoys from entering the enclave, he said.  Noting that food prices in Idlib are 26 per cent higher than the national average, he asked why, given the record number of deliveries through the cross-border mechanism, the north-west hosts the highest numbers of starving people.  He suggested that the “terrorists in Idlib are getting richer” and that aid is being “squirreled away”.  He also questioned how fairly a vaccine from GAVI reserves would be distributed in the north-west.  Thanks to the Russian military, a corridor now allows deliveries into Al-Hasakah, he said, suggesting that if the Council were to decide tomorrow on the extension of the cross-border mechanism, there would not be convincing grounds to do so.  He expressed surprise at remarks by the United States delegate, recalling that that country recently hindered the attendance of other Council briefers.  He asked Mr. Lowcock about how to surmount the obstacles hindering humanitarian efforts and about the difference between the Inter-Agency Task Force on Syria and the United Nations country team.

The representative of Niger expressed grave concern over the humanitarian situation, marked by a worsening economy, devalued currency and rising food prices.  He called for an immediate cessation of hostilities as a prerequisite for progress, citing the use of improvised explosive devices as a source of concern.  He expressed support for the Secretary-General’s appeal for an immediate national ceasefire, which would lay the foundation for a political process and ensure that the fight against the coronavirus is effective.  Stressing that counter-terrorism efforts must be carried out in full compliance with international law, ensuring that civilians are protected, he also called for better coordination by Syria’s Government in its aid distribution and unfettered humanitarian access for all civilians.  Deploring the destruction of schools and internally displaced person camps, and calling on authorities to resolve these issues, he went on to appeal for better security of the Al Hol camp.  He expressed concern over the arbitrary detainment of humanitarian and media workers, among others, pressing countries to lift or lighten all sanctions on Syria on humanitarian grounds.

The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines said that, hopefully, the rollout of vaccines to Syria through the COVAX facility will begin shortly and that doses will be administered efficiently.  She echoed appeals for the lifting of all unilateral coercive measures, which are hindering Syria’s ability to combat the pandemic.  Parties to the conflict must immediately end the violence, she said, adding that a sustained nationwide ceasefire will create the conditions necessary for much-needed reconstruction.  She encouraged the international community to contribute to the restoration of schools, medical facilities and other essential services.  Turning to the security situation in displacement camps, particularly at Al-Hol, she said that those who live and work in such facilities must be given protection and access to basic necessities.

The representative of Mexico said the current humanitarian situation in Syria could best be described as a manifestation of the cumulative effects of a decade of war.  The civilian population continues to pay a high price, with significant new incidents — including the use of improvised explosive devices in densely population areas — reported since January.  Condemning such acts of violence, he called upon all parties to respect ceasefire agreements, as well as their obligations under international law.  In the Al Hol camp in the north-west, people live in incredibly precarious conditions amid escalating violent incidents.  Calling for their repatriation and reintegration into their countries of origin, he said the Bal Al Hawa crossing point must remain open.  He advocated for the simplification of aid delivery procedures, pointing out that the need for medical supplies has increased amid the pandemic.  All States that have imposed unilateral sanctions should continuously and rigorously review them to ensure that they do not impact the civilian population.  “We must cast aside our own political agendas,” he stressed, adding that the lives of millions in Syria depend upon it.

The representative of India called for an end to the politicization of the humanitarian track, stating that people in urgent need of assistance cannot wait endlessly until political objectives are met.  All humanitarian aid to Syria must take the country’s independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty into account.  At the same time, bureaucratic hurdles — such as delays in approving aid convoys — must be addressed, he said, adding that unilateral measures imposed on Syria only aggravate the crisis.  He went on to say that his country, following the delivery of more than 2,000 metric tons of rice through the Syrian port of Latakia earlier in February, stands ready to work with the United Nations to ensure the provision of India-made COVID-19 vaccine to Syria.

The representative of Viet Nam called for enhanced cooperation among all parties to the conflict and the United Nations to ensure the unhindered passage of humanitarian relief.  Efforts must continue to establish access into the north‑west from inside Syria and to scale up the humanitarian response in that area.  He paid tribute to all humanitarian workers, called on all relevant United Nations agencies, donors and humanitarian groups to address food insecurity and welcomed the development of a COVID-19 vaccination plan for Syria.  He also called on all concerned parties to find timely and sustained solutions to the dire situation in camps for internally displaced persons and to the water shortage caused by the disruption of the Alouk water station.

The representative of Tunisia reiterated his country’s position that a political solution is the only way to end the conflict and re-establish peace and stability in Syria.  In the meantime, it is crucial to ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance and tackle the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.  “This crisis has affected all aspects of the day-to-day life of Syrians,” particularly the most vulnerable, he said, citing increasing violence and instances of terrorism.  Underlining the need to consolidate the ceasefire in all parts of the country, he called on the parties to respect international law and to ensure the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, while protecting health workers and facilitating the delivery of health supplies in a safe and unhindered manner.  Welcoming the improvement of coordination for the granting of aid delivery authorizations by Damascus, he went on to call for the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and for efforts to scale up their delivery through the global COVAX facility.

The representative of Kenya said there should be no limits on the delivery of humanitarian aid and that the opposing parties must cooperate to ensure timely, safe, sustained and unimpeded access to all humanitarian partners.  He reaffirmed Kenya’s opposition to the use of unilateral coercive measures, which are having an undeniable negative impact on the well-being of the Syrian people.  He added that the Security Council should start laying emphasis on a resilience-based humanitarian response to the crisis in Syria that would include the construction of schools and hospitals, economic recovery and job‑creation programmes for youth and the implementation of social cohesion measures.

The representative of China expressed deep concern about Syria’s economic challenges, including the continued depreciation of the Syrian pound, the impact of COVID-19 and the effects of recent natural hazards.  Calling on the global community to provide more support as Syria works to address those challenges, he underscored the need to stabilize the country’s markets.  Unilateral economic sanctions continue to worsen the situation, he added, describing such measures as “nothing short of a noose around the Syrian people’s necks”.  Against that backdrop, he called for the steady scale-up of cross-line aid deliveries, noting that China has provided $130 million in aid, and announced earlier in February that it will send 100,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine, 20 ventilators and thousands of metric tons of food supplies.  Urging Council members to support Syria’s important counter-terrorism efforts, he also expressed concern about the security incidents outlined by today’s briefers.  Syrian children’s lives and educations must be prioritized by the international community, and humanitarian issues must never be politicized in order to exert pressure on Syria’s Government.

The representative of the United Kingdom, Council President for February, spoke in her national capacity, agreeing with other speakers that the Syrian population has entered 2021 amid some of the most challenging humanitarian conditions experienced in the past 10 years of conflict.  Noting that cross-line humanitarian assistance has proven to be no substitute for cross-border aid, she said assistance flowing through the Bab al-Hawa crossing point has never been more important.  In the north-east, cross-line aid delivery from Damascus has failed to fill the gaps left by the 2020 closure of the Yaroubiya crossing.  “The prevention of humanitarian food distributions by bureaucratic impediments, or due to tensions between armed actors, in the north-east shows cross-line modalities alone cannot be relied upon,” she stressed, noting that United Nations officials have asserted, on five occasions since June  2020, that cross-line aid is not being delivered at the scale or frequency needed to meet humanitarian needs.  Moreover, the claim by Syrian authorities and the Russian Federation that cross-line access is enough to sustain the needs of three quarters of the population is untenable, as is the claim that “the West is somehow to blame”.

Mr. LOWCOCK, addressing a query on obstacles to coordination, said plans for humanitarian and development responses in Syria complement each other, and that the Humanitarian Response Plan and draft strategic framework address those needs.  While the draft strategic framework for Syria looks different from those in countries where there is no conflict, he said it outlines the basic principles around which United Nations agencies, funds and programmes carry out their work, taking as a starting point the specific country context.  “That is what is being done in Syria,” he explained.  In line with existing mandates, the Emergency Coordinator facilitates support through strategic and operational coordination forums, which bring together parts of the United Nations system that are active in Syria.  He said he is not aware of any internal impediments to coordination, noting, however, that “most of what we are trying to do in Syria is underfunded”, and that he would welcome contributions.

As to the difference between the Inter-Agency Task Force and the United Nations country team, he said the Task Force, established in 2012, is the Headquarters mechanism for planning and information-exchange at the working level.  It facilitates synergies across United Nations entities and is a standard coordination mechanism that the Organization applies in many settings.  It is spearheaded by the Department of Peace and Political Affairs and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).  The country team, on the other hand, ensures inter-agency collaboration and decision-making at the country level.

The representative of Syria expressed disappointment over systematic attempts to overlook the reality in his country, noting that support by the Government has led to “undeniable achievements”, despite threats posed by terrorism and the negative effects of unilateral coercive measures.  “The United Nations and its agencies would not have been able to mount a successful humanitarian operation in Syria without immense support and facilitation by the Syrian Government,” he said.  “All reports and briefings to the Council will remain lacking and flawed as long as they overlook crimes committed by terrorist groups”, such as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh), Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, Nusra Front and affiliated entities.  There is also disregard for the fact that these groups divert cross-border assistance to finance recruitment and use civilians as human shields, he said, noting that terrorists controlling Idlib recently prevented civilians from leaving the area through Sarakab crossing.

He denounced unilateral coercive measures as a flagrant violation of international law and a form of collective punishment that denies Syrians access to food, medicine, electricity and fuel, and limits the State’s ability to address challenges presented by COVID-19.  Turkey, through its military occupation of the north and north-west, is applying an indoctrination policy, imposing the Turkish lira, confiscating lands to build a so-called separation wall and allowing terrorist groups to take over public and private property.  It is also disrupting Alok water supply, depriving people in Hasakah of that basic resource.  The United States, through its occupation of areas in the north-east, meanwhile, is smuggling cultural artefacts, oil and crops out of Syria through crossings under its control.  Secessionist militias have conducted a siege on Hasakah, opening fire on civilians who are protesting the siege and calling for the return of State institutions to the north-east.  United States forces at Al-Tanf in the south-east have denied humanitarian access to Rukban camp.  Stressing that pressure must be brought to bear on Western Governments that refuse to repatriate their nationals, he decried the refusal to support humanitarian and development efforts by Syria’s institutions, including the implementation of the programmes under the United Nations strategic framework, such as school rehabilitation, which would allow for the voluntary return of internally displaced persons.

The representative of Turkey said that, 10 years into the conflict in Syria, the response by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to his people’s legitimate aspirations — including the use of starvation and targeted attacks — continues.  Turkey is working to assist civilians and preserve the ceasefire, all of which is critical to preventing more forced migration.  Calling on the international community to support those efforts, he declared:  “The world cannot turn its back on this massive humanitarian crisis.”  Indeed, the Council’s failure in July 2020 to maintain a critical cross-border supply route cannot be further compounded now by closing the only remaining crossing point.  “The Council has a responsibility to protect the Syrian people, and it cannot abandon them,” he stressed, also echoing calls for the prompt delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.  Meanwhile, he said, PKK-YPG is also committing crimes in Syria, including dozens of terror attacks over the last year.  Noting that some Member States still refrain from condemning such attacks — making the mistake of thinking they can reason with terrorists — he warned all countries not to support PKK-YPG and also drew attention to the abusive actions of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces.  Concluding, he said he will not honour the representative of Syria with a response as he does not consider him to be a legitimate counterpart.

The representative of Iran said Syria has long suffered at the hands of foreign-backed terrorists and illegal occupations, and in recent years from harmful unilateral sanctions.  Calling for the immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria, he said the Astana format guarantor countries — namely, the Russian Federation, Turkey and Iran — have long discussed those matters and worked to combat ISIL/Da’esh, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and other terrorist groups.  The Astana countries stood united against attempts to “create a new reality on the ground” under the pretext of combating terrorism, rejecting Israeli aggressions in the region, as well as attempts to extract oil revenues from Syria.  In addition, he said, the Astana guarantors have rejected all unilateral sanctions and called upon the United Nations to prioritize COVID-19 vaccinations in Syria.  Warning that unlawful and inhumane sanctions only serve to further exacerbate the crisis and prolong the suffering of the Syrian people, he also called for the return of refugees and internally displaced persons to go hand in hand with a political solution to the conflict.

The representative of Syria, taking the floor a second time in response to the statement delivered by the delegate from Turkey, said the latter does not have the authority to make declarations on the legitimacy of others.  Noting that Turkey’s presence in Syria runs counter to international law, he cited remarks by the representative indicating that Ankara rejects all forms of terrorism, while pointing out that the country has in fact provided support to both Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham and Nusra Front.

For information media. Not an official record.