Jan Egeland (JE): We had our eighth meeting of the Task Force on Humanitarian Access. We have been working for nearly two months and April was supposed to be our best month. It’s not looking so. So far I am disappointed and disheartened at what we achieved over the last week. We have a new procedure now saying that after seven days we should get a permission to go to a place and then, within another three days, we should have the final clearance to actually go.
According to that procedure, we had five convoys ready to go and for the last four days all of the five convoys could not go; 287,000 people therefore didn’t get the relief in hard-to-reach areas or in besieged areas.
What happened? In the areas of Ar-Rastan, At-Tall, Bloudan and Kafr Batna, which is a besieged area, the final clearance letter did not arrive on the eve of the convoys leaving. Fifty thousand people in Azzaz did not either get the supplies that they were supposed to get. In this case it was because a partner, the SARC, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, was not allowed to operate, of late, by the armed opposition group in Azzaz.
In two places where we were able to go to, Tiermalah and Afrin, some 45,000 people did get relief there. We have come up now to 446,000 people in hard-to-reach and besieged areas since the beginning of the year, but it’s not getting better, it is actually slowing down.
This means that our message was very clear to those who can influence the government: The government has to live up to its promises, up to the new procedures, and has to allow us to help people. Needs will be rising again rapidly if we are not allowed and able to go as we are supposed to.
We are also now entering into the intensive phase of the big vaccination campaign. There are problems in many places in going as planned. The appeal to the government and to the armed opposition groups is: do not stop our volunteers and health workers who are to vaccinate millions of children for epidemic diseases.
The one positive thing we are hoping to do in the very near future is a very major evacuation of wounded, sick and their relatives from the four towns, which are Madaya, Zabadani, Foah and Kefraya. All together it could be up to 500 people; it’s one of the biggest medical evacuation that have been planned. We hope it to happen, because it will happen from places where people have recently bled to death and died totally unnecessarily because there was no medical evacuation.
Medical evacuation should be happening as routine, as well as medical assessment and assistance, but it is not. Actually the whole issue in these four towns agreement of “tit for tat”; we are not able to evacuate people in grave danger from one town or area because there is no green light to evacuate a similar number of people from the other town at the exact time, and it is killing people. It has to be discontinued by the parties that have agreed to the four towns agreement as to other local agreements. We are hopeful that it will happen.
Q: Regarding the fact that the process is slowing down, how do you explain that? You told us that the parties in the field are blocking humanitarian aid. Are all the parties involved in that blockage?
JE: It is both sides that are not cooperating, but certainly when fifteen out of the eighteen besieged areas are besieged by the government or their allied forces, most of these issues are related to the government. When four out of the five convoys that were not allowed to go over the last days were not given facilitation letters by the government, and the other one because some of the armed opposition groups are not allowing SARC to operate in the north, it is mainly the government but not exclusively. So we are giving homework to the members of this Task Force to go to both sides in this conflict, or all sides in this conflict.
Q: Can you tell us more about what is happening with the detainees’ situation?
JE: It is an issue that the Task Force on Humanitarian Access is dealing actively with. It is however an issue that has been raised by many of the members. It is the ambition of the Special Envoy to get progress on the issue of detainees as part of peace and humanitarian efforts originating here in Geneva. He will be working with many humanitarian partners to that effect and with governments who can influence the armed groups. So, yes, it is still the ambition.
Q: When do you expect these evacuation to take place? Do you have the number of people that have bled to death and where? And could you give us an update on the airdrop situation in Deir Ez Zor? How many people do you expect to reach before the end of April? You said above a million but it doesn’t sound like you are going to reach that target.
JE: If it doesn’t change, we will not reach that target. We can still reach it. As I said, our ambition was to reach well over 200,000 people in a week. We did well under and we reached 45,000. We have ambitious plans for the next weeks. I hope and pray we will not have the same kind of rejection of requests for convoys or facilitation letters, of clearance and so on.
On the medical evacuations, they will for example happen from Madaya, where within the next week is really the hope to have effectuated this. Madaya was the place where three boys bled to death because they had played with a mine or an explosive, and there were desperate pleas for them to be evacuated and at least one of them would have been alive today, at least one. If Hezbollah that was besieging this place had said, of course according to international law, ‘these boys will be treated as they should be’. Instead it was again back to the tit for tat, ‘but nobody is gone from our besieged areas so we cannot evacuate anybody from Madaya now’. It has to stop. There were also other recent cases: a young man who was severely malnourished died recently, he could have been saved, I think, I hope, if he had been evacuated. I believe that was also from Madaya, just now, very recently.
Now on the airdrop we are making progress, and we hope to have good news soon. I do not have a definite date for you; all of the technical obstacles seem now to be cleared, and I mean cleared because in a fantastic cooperation between the United States, Russia, Canada and several European countries funding this, we now seem to have sorted out all of the technical problems to do this very difficult high-altitude airdrop operation.
Q : (Interpreted from French into English) You said you were disappointed, that you were disgusted by the present situation, but what are the guarantees from the parties to respect their engagements? Could you also clarify what you said on vaccines? You said that vaccination was needed against epidemics – which epidemics were you referring to? Also, are you satisfied with the funding from United Nations?
JE : Funding is an issue, for example we do not have enough funding to do vaccination, the three rounds of vaccinations. UNICEF needs more money. There seems to be actually some slowness in the London pledges actually reaching agencies and organizations active on the ground, in and around Syria. Many donors have to speed up their deliveries of funding.
The diseases; we want to vaccinate against is everything from polio to measles, diphtheria and other disease killers among children, but also others who are not vaccinated. I have no guarantees that this will improve. What I sense it that it is now sunk very much in with the big powers and the regional powers that sit in this Task Force that we do not have that much time. We need to see progress again very soon. It is very dangerous to lose the momentum with humanitarian work, because if the humanitarian situation again rapidly deteriorates, in many areas at the same time, it will also affect the political process, the cessation of hostilities and so on.
So we cannot fail, we must regain the momentum and I’m hopeful that that will happen in the next week or two.