Jan Egeland: We just finished the fifth of the taskforce meeting on humanitarian matters of the ISSG, International Support Group for Syria.
We could report that today the third convoy to the four towns has been able to go on its way. They are delivering as we speak to Madaya, to Zabadani, to Kafreya and to Foah. That convoy was held up twice in the last week because of fighting and it shows that still it is very difficult in many areas to get through with our relief, but thankfully now we have been able to serve those four towns.
It was not good to register that we have still not received permission to go to the remaining six of the 18 areas where we do not have permission to go, and that includes Darayya and Douma, that are symbolically important. These are, however, towns that are on the list of the one-month plan that was handed over to the government today. Under the new procedure we will be getting an answer back within seven days to all locations we have asked for in this monthly plan. All together the aim is to reach an impressive 1.1 million people before the end of April, including in those remaining [besieged] areas, which are the six without any permission and Deir ez Zor, where we still work [and] hope we are getting there in terms of solving the technical issues to also serve Deir ez Zor [via air drops].
We have gotten permits to go to 15 new hard-to-reach locations. That includes a number of locations in the Aleppo area and in the Homs area, where the needs have been growing and people have not received relief for months.
The issue of medical relief continues to be the single most difficult issue in humanitarian access work. Medical items are still taken off convoys, including surgical equipment, trauma care equipment but also important, and as was explained to all the members of the taskforce today by the WHO Representative, we are not able to get through medical personnel, we are not able to get medical assessment personnel, we are not able to get medical evacuation from besieged areas and even some hard-to-reach areas. So people are dying not only for the lack of medical equipment, but also from the lack of evacuations and for the lack of medical personnel being able to reach.
Now this is very much connected also to the vaccination plan that we have presented to the ISSG and which has been accepted. So from the end of April we will vaccinate hopefully all of the children that have not been vaccinated in Syria. That will be part of a three-phase vaccination campaign against a number of diseases that are now threatening to spread in Syria because the vaccination rate is now down to 50 or 60 per cent, which is a prescription for epidemic disease. We hope that the humanitarian truces in connection with the vaccination campaigns will be successful and that will then end the fear of such epidemic disease.
Q: The Special Envoy, when he spoke to us the other day, said something that has been added to your mandate, which is the issue of detainees. Have you been discussing in your meeting today the issue of detainees, and have you made any progress?
JE: This is to be raised to the ISSG by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura. He said that it is an urgent humanitarian and protection issue, the issue of detainees. He said we will reach out to members of the taskforce, members of the ISSG, to have them help us vis-à-vis the parties so we can have progress on the issue. It is not necessarily to be on the agenda of the taskforce as such, but we will work with the members of the taskforce, and I must say that nothing would be more important now than to get out some groups in particular women and children and the sick and the wounded among the detainees. So yes, we are hopeful we can make progress on this issue.
Q: I understand that as a major donor Japan has been also participating in your meetings and I was wondering if today the issue of the case of journalist [Jumpei] Yasuda, who has been held hostage reportedly by al-Nusra, was mentioned in the meeting. And if not, is your taskforce addressing more broadly the issue of foreign nationals detained or kidnapped?
JE: The issue of foreign nationals detained or kidnapped was not raised. It could be among issues that could be covered if there is progress among the issue of detainees and the release of detainees.
Q: I would like to ask you how many children do you hope to reach in this vaccination campaign? Which are the diseases that are imminent that concern you most? I was wondering whether polio is a matter of concern because it can spread across borders. And also, how many people have you reached with humanitarian aid, and you mentioned that you are worried that some people might die for lack of medical care. As far as you know, have some people died because the medical convoys have not got through? Thank you.
JE: The numbers which is on this chart that we will distribute to you will clearly show that so far this year we have reached nearly 260,000 people in hard-to-reach and besieged areas, 150,000 in the besieged areas, most of them through repeated convoys, and 110,000 in so-called hard-to-reach areas. That is a great improvement compared to last year. It is not where we wanted to be now, because there are too many places that we are planning to reach and, as I mentioned, we have more than a million people in the portfolio that was handed to the government today, who are people that we want to reach and people who we have asked for a permit to go to.
On the vaccination, well it is millions of children all together across Syria, and we are going to reach them for diseases like measles and polio and some other communicable diseases killing children and actually also grown-ups if it becomes epidemic diseases. You will remember that polio was spreading for a while - it was successfully met, it could spread again, but measles for example would also be a big killer if they are not vaccinated.
Q: What has been the impact of the announcement of the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria? As I understand it Russians to some degree have been instrumental in helping getting humanitarian aid into besieged areas either at checkpoints or various other good offices, what is the impact of that on humanitarian aid?
JE: Well the impact of less fighting has been very clear. There is more access in more areas and it is less dangerous to go both with cross line and cross border assistance to many areas compared to during the big bombardment period. I hope that Russia will be as instrumental in helping our humanitarian access work in the future as has been in the past. That is how we work in this group, and that those who can influence armed group will also do so.
Q: How instrumental has Russia been?
JE: Well in many of the places where convoys had problems in getting through, Russia was among the countries that intervened and helped enable convoys to get through. I remember that [in] Moadamiyeh was a convoy that was more than 30 hours standing at checkpoints, couldn't get through, Russia helped us getting through.
Q: Were there Russian people on the ground helping?
JE: The way we relate to the Russians is through their ambassador, and certainly they have people on the ground.
Q: There are some cases the Syrian government said that fighters sometimes they control the aid and do not give it to the families or the people, for example in Madaya where that happened before. What is your idea on that, and I want to ask about the cooperation of the Syrian government with you to deliver this aid.
JE: In all of the places where we give relief we have local partners so it could be the local relief committee, it could be the local Syrian Arab Red Crescent branch, it would be someone getting the relief and responsible for distributing that. And no, we do not have systematic or credible reports that our relief is not going to the civilian population as is the intention.
In terms of the Syrian government support, I would like to say two things: we need permits to go to the remaining six besieged locations. After Munich we got permission to go to 12 out of the 18; the six remaining was not given then and has not been given since and it is, among other places, Darayya, where we believe the situation is very dire, very very difficult for the civilians, and a place like Douma, which should be very easy to reach, where convoys are going through Douma to other places. And we need the government of Syria to really help us with the medical areas, why not getting nutrition like vitamins, antibiotics, and doctors and nurses to these places. I hope that there will be a real breakthrough on this in our contacts with the government.
Q: These places like to Douma or Darayya, it is closed by the fighters; that's why it is not possible for the Syrian government to help you because fighters are responsible for these places like Douma and Darayya.
JE. I can very much confirm that in terms of Douma, Harasta, Arbin, Zamalka, it is not the problem. Convoys even go through Douma to Kafr Batna, why aren’t they allowed to stay and offload in Douma? In Darayya there has been fighting but we had a very clear impression that we will not be having any problems in delivering if we get the two sides to agree to the cessation of hostilities so that we can deliver to the few thousand people there, civilians who are in a very very difficult position.
Q: Following the cessation of hostilities over two weeks and you still did not get a permission from the Syrian government to enter six besieged towns. What’s their reason? What is their explanation for not giving you permission to reach those besieged towns? Also you said why for medical supplies to be delivered to besieged towns. Can you give us the reason why the Syrian regime is not allowing you to enter aid into those besieged towns?
JE. I do not know why they do not give permission for those last six areas. It shouldn't be more strategic or more difficult or more special than the other places like Madaya and Moadamiyeh, which were also very symbolic for a long time. I don't know. I know that Darayya has become a symbolic issue but I wouldn't speculate. If civilians need help we can give them help. It is in violation of international law to prevent us from going. In terms of the medical services, equally I cannot understand why we cannot go there and help the civilians; even wounded fighters have the right to be treated according to international law.
Q: What is the situation in Deir ez-Zor? For the air delivery of aid, have you advanced on this issue? What is your last assessment? Do you have plans to try again to deliver aid there?
JE: We have it as a standard item because it was among the things that were decided in Munich, to really do air drops immediately to Deir ez-Zor. It turned out technically difficult and we have thought it had to be from a great height since it is the IS that is controlling the area around, and may have surface to air missiles, so it had to be from a great height, it has to be at great speed and the parachutes had to sustain this enormous jolts of the pallets. They didn't in the first trial, they didn't in the second trial over the desert in Jordan. Now there are new parachutes on their way; we are actually having it from several countries and the excellent logisticians of the World Food Programme are now hopeful that before too long, maybe another ten days, we will be able to succeed.
Q: In your committee do you take into account the fact that UNRWA has been freely taking food and medical supplies to the towns and villages south of Yarmouk like Yalda and so on, and they have been doing this for the past five weeks?
JE: That is why we, in a way, consider that there is great progress on one area of the 18 besieged areas, which is the Yarmouk area. People can go from Yarmouk to Yalda and the other places and recently UNRWA has had great progress on that. So in a way we consider that this is one of the areas where we have had progress as we had with the four towns, Moadamiyeh, etc.
Q: I would like to ask you to elaborate on two of your earlier answers: one is about Russia being instrumental in your humanitarian work, but I wonder the issue of detainees, what signals do you get from the Russians? Are they giving you any indication why this cannot be done? Whether or not they are going to go to the Syrian government and get them to release people. And also you mentioned surface to air missiles in Deir ez-Zor. Who is telling you that there is surface to air missiles? Have you got specific information about that threat or you are just staying at a high altitude to be safe, as a precautionary principle?
JE: Again. I’m no military expert, that's what I heard, that indeed there is a threat of missiles so that is why it has to go from a high altitude, and convoys are not possible unfortunately that will be the way of doing it. On detainees, our request is out there with the ISSG members – all of them, including the co-chairs Russia and the United States, to help us in ensuring that there is progress on the detainees issue, which is important we gather for both sides, and we have flagged those vulnerable groups which are the women and children, the wounded and sick. There is a lot of innocent civilians in detention; they should be released.
Q: The situation of detainees but also Darayya was particularly emphasized by the HNC when they arrived here in Geneva in terms of process. Does that mean that both delegations, or the other participants, are closely associated to the meetings? Have you hearings with some representatives of the HNC during the meetings? Or do they go through the different countries that they might be close to?
EJ: The whole construct of the ISSG is that certain countries, and you know who are relating to the armed opposition groups and the HNC and others, on all of the issues of importance for us and other members of the group are doing the same with the government. The government has been the most important to influence here because they are besieging most of the areas that are besieged. They are also the ones who have to give permission to all of the crossline convoys, etc., so indeed that has been the number-one part of our work, the government.