© UNICEF/Can Remzi Ergen A disabled refugee girl from Syria in a wheelchair is helped by her sister as she and her other siblings head to school in Adana, Turkey.
With COVID-19 cases in Syria multiplying, its economy in freefall, and some households cooking weeds to eat in order to survive, the UN’s emergency relief coordinator is pressing the Security Council to extend its authorization for cross-border aid deliveries from Turkey.
Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said that the Council’s green light for aid from Turkey into Syria – which is set to expire on 10 July – is a lifeline for millions of civilians in Syria’s northwest.
“We cannot reach them without”, he told the Council via video-teleconference, adding that a failure to extend its authorization will halt UN food deliveries and “cause suffering and death”.
Border crossing background
After protracted negotiations, the Council on 10 January adopted resolution 2504 (2020) extending until 10 July authorization for the United Nations and its partners to deliver humanitarian aid across borders into Syria.
Through the text, the Council decided that aid would continue to be delivered through the Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa crossings only — excluding Al Yarubiyah and Al-Ramtha on Syria’s borders with Iraq and Jordan, through which deliveries have moved since 2014.
China, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States abstained from voting on the resolution, which was adopted after two failed attempts in December 2019 to reauthorize the mechanism.
In his latest report on the humanitarian situation in Syria, Secretary-General António Guterres asked the Council to renew the authorization for 12 months.
Mr. Lowcock reported that so far, Syrian authorities have confirmed 256 cases of novel coronavirus, including nine fatalities, with six recorded in the north-east, including one death – a more than four-fold increase since he last briefed the Council in May.
“But this must not be read with too much optimism, since testing remains extremely limited”, he said, adding that the spread of COVID-19 in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen indicates the scale of the risk going forward.
Not only is Syria’s health system unprepared for a large-scale outbreak, but just the threat of broader COVID-19 outbreak alone is aggravating Syria’s economic crisis and constraining the humanitarian response, he added.
Prices for food, medicine, fuel and other essentials are soaring, while the Syrian pound has lost more value in the past six months than in the first nine years of war, he said.
‘Breaking point’ has arrived
“Across the country, people who have struggled through nine years of devastating conflict are telling us that they have now reached breaking point”, he said, with more and more Syrian families going into debt and eating less to survive.
Focusing on the situation in the northwest, he said that the mass displacement of almost one million people earlier this year, economic hardship and COVID-19 have left the area’s civilians among Syria’s most vulnerable.
“Some (people) say they are also cooking weeds to supplement the food rations”, he said. “Such is the level of desperation.”
Overall, an estimated 2.8 million people in the northwest – or 70 per cent of the region’s population – require humanitarian assistance, he said, speaking a day before Brussels hosts a fourth Syria donors’ conference.
In May alone, nearly 1,800 trucks crossed the border from Turkey, hauling enough food to sustain 1.3 million people per month.
Nevertheless, more and more infants and children show signs of malnutrition, as mothers say they must rely on food packages because they cannot afford shopping in regular markets.
Both the Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa crossings must stay open, he said, explaining that the former provides direct access to parts of northern Aleppo that host some of the highest concentrations of displaced people in Syria.
Syrians need international solidarity, warn agency chiefs
Relief chief Lowcock was joined by his counterparts in the UN development (UNDP), and refugee agencies (UNHCR) on Monday, in calling for solidarity with countries hosting record levels of Syrian refugees.
Their appeal comes on the eve of a major pledging conference in Brussels to help conflict-weary Syrian and host communities, who now face an unprecedented hunger crisis.
This has been made worse by the economic impact of COVID-19, which has caused “spiralling impoverishment” and unemployment in neighbouring countries, as people lose their jobs.
Inside Syria, more than 11 million people need aid and protection.
While hostilities have decreased overall, there are tensions and flare-ups of violence in the northwest, northeast and the south, including resurgence of ISIL-affiliated groups.
Outside Syria’s borders, the conflict has created the largest refugee crisis in the world: 6.6 million refugees. More than 5.5 million live in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
In the statement, Mark Lowcock said that “a whole generation of children has known nothing but hardship, destruction and deprivation”.
Loss amidst widening outbreak threat
UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi said the COVID crisis “has had an immediate and devastating impact on livelihoods of millions of Syrian refugees and their hosts in the region…The most vulnerable in the society – including millions of refugees – have lost their already fragile and meager income. They are sliding deeper into poverty and debt.”
“The economic crisis now crashing upon an already-strained region is rolling back development and putting unbearable pressure on governments and communities hosting refugees in the region,” said Achim Steiner, Administrator of the UNDP.
The $6 billion refugee and resilience plan for Syria’s neighbours is only 19 per cent funded, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Monday.
To do something about the crisis, “generous pledges, quickly paid out, can help the UN and humanitarian organisations stay the course in Syria and get people the food, shelter, health services and protection they urgently need”, Mr Lowcock insisted.