Access for aid agencies becomes matter of life and death in Syria

Aid agencies are being hampered by lack of access, trust and funds

A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Syrian Arab Red Crescent team arrives to the Bustan al-Qasser neighbourhood in Aleppo, which is controlled by opposition forces. Photograph: EPA/UNHCR

A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and Syrian Arab Red Crescent team arrives to the Bustan al-Qasser neighbourhood in Aleppo, which is controlled by opposition forces. Photograph: EPA/UNHCR


Fighting, and the calculations of both the Syrian government and insurgents, determine whether civilians in contested areas eat, drink, cook and treat ailments and wounds. “Access” is a matter of life and death.

For the past 11 days the UN agency looking after Palestinian refugees and others in the doubly besieged Yarmouk quarter of the capital, Damascus, has been unable to deliver food and medical supplies. The last food baskets, which provide for a family for 10 days, were distributed on April 10th.

The agency has received no governmental authorisation, at least in part, because clashes continue between the army and the insurgent groups occupying the area. These groups, including al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and the Saudi-backed Islamic Front, are angry with residents who have not only demanded the fighters’ departure under an agreement reached early this year, but have staged demonstrations against them.

Insurgents have responded with live fire and repression, says Jamil, a displaced Yarmouk resident .

Khaled Erksoussi, operations chief of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (Sarc), says access is particularly uncertain for areas under insurgent control. “We tried twice and failed to deliver aid in Muadamiya” – a sprawling suburb west of the capital where there is a ceasefire and residents are moving back. However, he says they “succeeded in besieged east Aleppo”, from where most civilians have fled to government- controlled western quarters.

Financial challenge
Sarc’s main challenge is financial, Erksoussi says. “The staff in our warehouse work 24 hours. We have between seven and nine million internally displaced, but aid for only four million. Sarc made an appeal for 106 million Swiss francs and has raised only 55 million through the International Committee of the Red Cross. Countries which supply weapons [to combatants] should be obliged to supply equal amounts of humanitarian aid.”

He argues that access has to be continuous rather than for one or two convoys, and that provisions must include medicines and medical devices, including syringes and vaccines for polio and other diseases.

Erksoussi is critical of the World Health Organisation, which gives all its aid through the Syrian health ministry, even though it cannot operate in insurgent-held areas.

“The aid should be split 50-50,” he says, adding that Sarc “can get into these areas” by negotiating with both sides, while the ministry cannot.

Thirty-four Sarc volunteers have been killed since the crisis began in 2011. Two were injured on April 10th in Homs when a car exploded, killing and wounding police and civilians. Another bomb was timed to detonate when the Sarc ambulance arrived to attend to the injured. Such targeting is common, forcing response teams to wait a critical 40 minutes before going to a site.

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokesman Ralph El-Hage says that in line with its global practice all aid is channelled through Sarc, the national branch, while the ICRC provides goods, financial resources and technical aid.

“On health, we are not doing anything in comparison with other conflicts,” he says, citing lack of access.

The ICRC suffers from a lack of acceptance and trust on the insurgent side, since it is seen as having a “religious agenda” due to its symbol of the cross, and because it operates in government-controlled areas. People on the government side, meanwhile, do not know what the organisation does. Consequently, the ICRC is conducting an information campaign to change perceptions.

Hage contrasts the situation in Syria with that in Lebanon, where the Lebanese Red Cross is trusted and its intervention welcome.

In February the ICRC provided food to 770,000 displaced people in 10 Syrian provinces and repaired equipment supplying water to 1.6 million in Aleppo. The ICRC also supplied daily meals for 4,000 displaced people living in shelters, as well as household items such as blankets, towels and kitchen sets.