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Press Conference by Humanitarian Affairs Operations Director on Situation in Syria, 28 January 2013

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

As the humanitarian situation in Syria continued to worsen, greater efforts would be needed to overcome such challenges as impediments to humanitarian access and the massive funding shortfall, a top United Nations humanitarian official said at a Headquarters press conference today.

John Ging, Operations Director of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the purpose of his recent four-day mission to Syria, alongside the emergency directors of seven other United Nations humanitarian organizations, had been to focus on gaps in the Organization’s humanitarian efforts, as well as the challenges they faced, and to increase the “reach” of those efforts.

“The situation in Syria, as we all know, continues to deteriorate,” he said. Not only were there greater humanitarian needs, but they were also becoming more acute. More than 2 million people were estimated to be internally displaced and over 4 million to be in need of assistance. “Those figures keep increasing day by day,” he stressed. “It is very important to scale up our efforts.” The International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria, to be held in Kuwait City this week, would not only be critical in pointing out challenges, but also to solutions identified “to get to more people, faster, and in a better way”.

Mr. Ging said the mission had visited Damascus, the surrounding area, Homs and Dera’a, as well as crossing the conflict line into Talbiseh. Its members had met with the Government, seeking to secure its agreement to improve humanitarian access. “[The Government has] a responsibility to support our humanitarian access under humanitarian law, and we have not been satisfied with the access that we have been able to secure,” he said in that regard.

The mission had seen the effects of 22 months of conflict, as well as a population that was “very weary and quite despairing”, he continued. Infrastructure was significantly damaged and the need for food and medicine, water and other essentials was evident. Indeed, the scale of the devastation was both “shocking” and “unrelenting”. Crossing the conflict line was a daily challenge for humanitarian partners, he added, noting that, until the mission’s arrival and its new agreement with the Government, United Nations agencies had not yet been able to cross it.

Also at the top of the mission’s agenda, he said, was finding ways to increase the international field presence across the country, address issues relating to the streamlining of bureaucracy and to ensure the safety of the 18 United Nations staff recently detained by the Government. Another particular aim of the mission had been to ensure the integrity of aid delivery across the conflict line, he said, noting that members of the team had accompanied Syrian Red Crescent volunteers as they delivered aid in order to better understand that critical issue.

While there had been some headway with the Government regarding humanitarian access, there had been little success on gaining access to particular northern border-crossing points that were no longer under Government operational control. To gain access to those points — which were critical to providing a much higher volume of aid — agreements would need to be reached with the Government, the opposition and the Government of Turkey, he said. “Cross-line [access] is not significant enough,” he said, adding: “We are seeking to get access to all areas.”

In addition, the United Nations sought to address misperceptions that it was only providing assistance to those in Government-controlled areas, he continued. In fact, about 48 per cent of its food assistance was going into disputed and opposition-controlled areas. The Organization was conscious of being fair and respecting its obligations of neutrality, in particular in “hot areas” where the conflict was raging, Mr. Ging emphasized.

Asked about particular needs impeded by the lack of humanitarian access, he said the most acute immediate need was for medical supplies. Food assistance was of almost equal importance, and shortages of electricity, water and non-food items — such as blankets for those who had fled their homes during the cold winter — were also critical. “The state of living conditions for people in Syria across the board is just appalling,” he reiterated.

When asked about the coordination of aid and the relationship between the Red Crescent and the Government, he said nine international non-governmental organizations were working in Syria at the moment. “It’s a big problem for us,” he said, stressing the need for more such organizations, in particular to help verify the integrity of aid delivery. About 72 local non-governmental organization partners were also working with the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, as was the Syria Red Crescent, its principal partner.

It was important to keep a firewall between that organization and the Government, he continued, noting, however, that it was often a challenge to verify such a separation. While there appeared to be a high level of integrity in aid delivery, as reported by partners on the ground, there were always risks, he cautioned, stressing: “We have to be more present on the ground.”

Asked about the standard of assistance to refugees, he admitted that those in Turkey had a higher living standard than those in other countries. The funding necessary to provide that high level of assistance in all countries was lacking, he said.

In response to a question about the Kuwait donor conference, he said a $519 million plan would be presented, alongside proposed operational solutions for cross-border aid delivery. In addition, there was a plan for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to support some 650,000 refugees, which would cost around $1 billion. Indeed, “as this crisis gets worse, it’s not just that people are suffering more … it also become more expensive”. Donors had not stepped up to meet that challenge, he stressed, noting that the humanitarian appeal had only been about 50 per cent funded in 2012.

Mr. Ging also responded to a question about the effects of unilateral sanctions on Syria, saying that issue had been raised by many non-governmental partners. Noting that banking sanctions had made the production and purchase of medicines extremely difficult, he said a number of studies had been carried out on the matter, and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs continued to monitor the effects of sanctions on the ground. “It’s an issue that has to continue to be addressed,” he added.

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