JE: Thank you very much. We had another meeting of the Humanitarian Task Force of the International Syria Support Group. The message to the Member States is the following: The marathon of pain, suffering and violence in Syria is far from over. So it is wrong that it seems to be fading from the attention globally, there has been less coverage of recent massive displacement of people, and there has been less humanitarian funding for Syria.
We have 7.7% funding only after one quarter of the year finished, in a situation where needs have risen compared to recent years. So a very well-funded humanitarian operation for Syrian civilians is now an acutely under-funded operation.
Perhaps the number one sign that the suffering is continuing and this is the very wrong time to turn our back to Syrian civilians is that more than half a million men, women and children have been displaced in the first three months of the year, more than half a million people. They have been displaced in and around Idlib, they have been displaced in and around eastern Ghouta, Rural Damascus, and from the district of Afrin in northern Aleppo.
Hopefully the battle is over now in the heavily populated area of eastern Ghouta after many years of besiegement and suffering. We have no reports of recent fighting, no reports of recent air raids. There were some 400,000 people besieged in eastern Ghouta for several years. At the end of the fighting, 130,000 people left eastern Ghouta, this is since the 9th of March, of this 83,000 went to eight collective shelters within rural Damascus in government- controlled areas. Conditions there had been terrible, our humanitarian partners were overwhelmed, the people came in the tens of thousands within a short period of time, now the operation is picking up and there is more help, but I was struck by 940 toilettes were installed, but if there are still 50,000 people in these collective shelters it is really terrible that they couldn’t be given more assistance more quickly, but that is the horrible conditions of the area.
Of the 83,000, one third have been now able to leave the collective shelters and that is important because it has to be freedom of movement for everyone, these are people who have been sponsored by, taken care of by relatives and others.
There is an ongoing negotiation between the Government and the Russian Federation and the armed groups inside Douma, which is the remaining area still under armed opposition control. We hope that that agreement will lead to people being able to stay, if they chose to, to get amnesty for those who put away their arms, but also be an opportunity to leave for those who chose to leave Douma. These evacuations have been massive; 50,000 people have left for Idlib alone.
Evacuations of civilians are desperate measures in desperate times. The best thing is that there is no war in urban areas, but all of those end battles in Syria going from one city to the other have been very bloody, and very costly in terms of civilian lives and civilian blood.
I think the evacuations helped end the battle and as such, it is a good thing. But 50,000 left for Idlib, we had a report to the group of countries on the conditions in Idlib. There are 2.2 million people in this small province. Of those two thirds are internally displaced people, they are displaced, so one and half million are displaced people in a small province means it is the biggest refugee camp on earth, in many ways, or cluster of refugee camps on earth. One and a half million people, I haven’t ever seen a province where two-thirds of the entire population were displaced, and many were displaced multiple times. This shows that we need to learn from the battles of Homs, Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor, eastern Ghouta: Idlib cannot become a battle zone, it is full of civilians and they are vulnerable, displaced.
Conditions for humanitarian partners trying to help the hundreds of thousands are horrific, they have to care for hundreds of thousands without a home, without a shelter, without conditions. They are completely overwhelmed and on top of that, they are acutely underfunded. The appeals for the civilians in Idlib have not been funded, we should be able to do better at this last leg of the marathon of suffering in Syria.
Now there are also very concerning reports on the fate of the 140,000 displaced from and within the Afrin district in northern Aleppo governorate. Since the Turkish operation that started in late January, 140,000 people had been displaced, and estimated 50,000-70,000 people remain in Afrin town. We are concerned with restrictions on the movement of some of those who had left, for example it is very hard for sick and wounded to go Aleppo city as they may wish. In short, it is difficult, terrible for displaced from eastern Ghouta, displaced from Idlib, or displaced from the Afrin region.
We also had a report to the meeting on the important first big assessment mission to Raqqa city by the United Nations. This was an assessment done on 1 April, it was with 25 UN experts from a number of the key agencies. They report perhaps now that as many as 100,000 people have come back to Raqqa city. These are humanitarian workers who visited there and many said they had not seen such devastation before, ever. It seems worse than what was seen after the battle of Aleppo and the battle of Homs ended. A particular area of concern is the unexploded bombs, grenades and explosive traps: the latter left behind by Islamic State fighters and the former by this enormous military campaign to take or to liberate Raqqa.
So homes are still full of bombs, grenades. Children, civilians are still being killed when and if they return. And it is still a city without a functioning public service, public services are planned but they are not really there yet. There is one functioning private hospital, there is no real police law and order, no real services in terms of public records, IDs, marriage certificates, birth certificate or anything. That has to come under control because there is another 100,000 people just outside of Raqqa wanting to return to the place.
Now let me perhaps end on a one point, it is related to Idlib and other areas where war is still raging or threatening, and it is the issue of de-confliction and protection of protected sites and installations under humanitarian law. You will know that basic principles of humanitarian law are that those waging war are told where a hospital is, where a humanitarian office is, where a humanitarian warehouse is, where a convoy is going. By in large in war zones this means clearly greater protection. In all war zones there are violations or attacks even on protected sites where coordinates had been given so-called de-confliction. We haven’t been able to have a full and functional system in Syria throughout the war, some organizations have given their coordinates, many actually have chosen not to. The hospitals were hit, schools and other protected sites at an astronomical (rate) in Syria, through the war. Of late, many of the organizations have regained trust in the system and 170 sites have been de-conflicted, meaning the organizations have voluntarily decided to give the coordinates to the UN, who then say we watch for these being neutral and impartial places and then giving the coordinates to Russia and the United States who are the Co-Chairs of this Humanitarian Task Force. Now it is part of the de-confliction system that when there is an attack on a place where coordinates were given, we investigate as UN, we then provide report on what we found in terms of attacks and we give it to the two co-chairs. And on 20 March we got reports of a serious incident in terms of a health facility in Arbeen, east Ghouta, which was hit, and where sick and wounded have been treated for many years, and apparently one patient died. This has been then reported to Russia and the United States and we have urged them to investigate what can have happened.
I am saying all of this because it is not even half over in terms of protection needs in Syria, Idlib is one of the places full of protected installations and we need to see no more attacks.
Question: You said 140,000 people left eastern Ghouta already, as we understand, 260,000 estimated people are still in eastern Ghouta area, so what is the evacuation plan for all the civilians left in eastern Ghouta, how will you escort them and protect them? The second question is on Idlib, do you have any humanitarian access to Idlib because you said this is the biggest refugee camp in the world, now that it is very crowded, what is the United Nations plan to protect all those civilians? We know that there are many international NGOs trying to help civilians there right now, and the people who escaped from eastern Ghouta most of them went to Idlib, what is the UN doing there? What is your plans for the future?
JE: On Idlib, I did correct myself and say it is the biggest cluster of refugee or displacement camps in the world, 1.5 million people there displaced. What we can do is monitor, be there, have protection by presence, there are a lot of non-governmental organizations there, partners of the UN who do cross border assistance from Turkey, lots of Syrian organizations there and there is UN cross border assistance also from Turkey. One of the concerns in Idlib is that some of the armed actors, non-state armed actors, tried to interfere with humanitarian work and therefore there was an appeal today again to those who have influence on non-state armed groups to order them to not interfere in any way with independent and neutral humanitarian human work.
On eastern Ghouta, there was 380,000-390,000 there when it was besieged before the recent campaign, so 130,000 people we have registered that had left, the Russian military had a higher number. We then would say anywhere between 80,000-150,000 are in the Douma area, still under control of the armed opposition groups, Jaysh al-Islam the biggest, and then the rest are actually in those areas like Kafr Batna and so on which are now under government control and the people remained there, and we humanitarian partners are trying as fast as possible to access all areas with assistance so the people who remain will get assistance and those people who left would have assistance and also monitoring that, we are trying to monitor that people have freedom of movement. Evacuations should be voluntary, staying behind should be voluntary choice and right, return should be a right, but also be voluntary.
Question: I am interested in what you said about evacuations, I think you said they helped in the battle and they were a good thing, with respect to Aleppo, the Commission of Inquiry said that those evacuations amount to a “war crime” so are we in a situation where something that happens in Syria can be simultaneously a “war crime” and “helpful” in the sense that they helped end the fighting? Presumably some of these evacuations could qualify as “forced” unless you feel otherwise.
JE: I am glad you are letting me clarify. I said that the best thing is No Evacuation, because there is no war in the urban area. So eastern Ghouta, Aleppo, Homs, Raqqa, the best thing would have been that there was a negotiation that made a deal which meant no war in this area. Now these are direct talks between the armed actors, UN is not involved or only indirectly involved in trying to push protection standards. We are often asking as humanitarians to be more involved because we would be able to ensure that evacuations are voluntary. In the case in eastern Aleppo and it could also be the case here, there has also been involuntary evacuations which is in violation of humanitarian law. The evacuations should be voluntary, people should have the right to stay if they chose to, and they should also have a choice of where to go to. Will you want to go to opposition controlled areas or government controlled areas. It is also an issue of which opposition controlled area to go to because some of these armed groups, some of them are fighters with their families, may be having an enemy relationship to some of the groups holding some of these areas. So that’s why I just said I think the evacuation deals may have shortened the battle, and that is the good thing, it might have shortened the battle. The worst possible thing would have been a fighting street by street, like in Raqqa, until the very very bitter end.
Question: You mentioned the situation in Afrin and it seems that the next measure operation might be Manbij, so I wonder is there any contingency plan, pre-positioning aid that you might be planning in that region?
JE: Well it will not be any more military operations really. What we hope is that these operations that we had seen now are the last ones. We should have a negotiated deal for Manbij, we should have negotiated agreements to end the war and protect the civilians in Idlib, in northern Homs, in Daraa in the south, it should end now really. But yes, we always have contingency plans, yes, but the contingency plans do not mean that we are not overwhelmed. We had a contingency plan for eastern Ghouta and one was still overwhelmed because tens of thousands of people came in days and they were completely exhausted and they came to places where there was no capacity. There are contingency plans in Idlib but how can you deal with two thirds of the population being displaced? It is very very difficult.
Question: A little while ago you were saying, or you UN colleagues were saying that explosions has a contamination around Raqqa so severe that there is no possibility of delivering humanitarian relief. Is that still the case or are you able to deliver humanitarian convoys and relief to Raqqa and is anybody carrying out this explosive hazards in Raqqa?
JE: Yes, it is possible to deliver humanitarian assistance to Raqqa, assistance is being delivered to Raqqa by a number of non-governmental organizations and other actors, and the UN will also start our assistance programmes there. The United States in the Task Force today explained all the activities that they have sponsored in terms of assistance to Raqqa and all that they have done to clear roads and streets and so on. But still it is incredible how much there is in any home and any back yard and so on, so people returning are taking a too large a risk still and it just shows the fierceness of this battle and again the question was it necessary to totally destroy a city to liberate it?
Question: just a follow-up, you are having a free access for aid convoys to the parts of eastern Ghouta that had been liberated?
JE: Yes, to those parts that are retaken by the government we now have free access, there has been assessment missions, the Humanitarian Coordinator came back from areas yesterday, so that kind of work is happening. What we do not yet have is access to the Douma area, and I really find it remarkable how we were held back from assisting the civilian population in eastern Ghouta during these periods of attacks on Ghouta and also periods in negotiations on these final deals taking place. Why can we not deliver to the people of Douma today for example even though we are on the eve of a deal for Douma? Civilians are really really underneath in terms of needs.
Question: Could you elaborate on what’s being done in Raqqa, particularly you mentioned that the Americans have a number of activities that they are doing in Raqqa, you said clearing streets, can you say more on how they are paying for it, what kind of deployment do they have, are they paying locals to do the work? How did all that work?
JE: There are actually differing views and accounts on how well or how bad it has gone in Raqqa, among the members of the task force. The US explained a lot of things that had been done and is being done, and then there is criticism that it is too slow in terms of having public administration, public services and it is too slow in clearing explosives beyond streets and public places. So nearly 70% of buildings are destroyed or damaged according to the local council that does exist in Raqqa and many services such as water, electricity and health are absent or severely limited, some schools have resumed though they are lacking in school materials and other supplies. And there is one private hospital functioning in the city, no epidemics have been reported though. For the UN, it was our first mission, it took a long time to get permission actually from the government side to go there, and before that it was the concern for all the explosives, now of course the UN is able and willing to help restore services in Raqqa and 100,000 more people want to go back, but again my colleague reporting on his mission today said it is incredible to have a city with nearly 100,000 people and no public services nearly.