Aid agencies ‘unable’ to access 250,000 in need in Aleppo

Head of International Committee of the Red Cross says humanitarian actors cannot solve crisis

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, right, with Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan TD. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, right, with Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan TD. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


Supplies of food, water and basic healthcare items are ready to be deployed “in record time” to the more than 250,000 people trapped in eastern Aleppo who were left without hospital care after the bombardment of two general hospitals last weekend.

However, without safe access and security arrangements, impartial aid agencies like the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are unable to distribute these basic goods to the thousands left stranded.

The ICRC depends on its ability to build a level of “trust and confidence between belligerents” and create spaces where assistance and protection can be provided, says the president of the aid agency. However, the ongoing violence in places like Aleppo is preventing the agency from carrying out vital humanitarian work.

Speaking in Dublin on Monday following a meeting with the Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan, ICRC president Peter Maurer highlighted how the armed conflicts of the 21st century, which have become “faster moving, longer in duration and more far-reaching in impact than in decades before”, cannot be solved by humanitarian actors.

While the ICRC is uniquely placed in its role as an impartial front line negotiator, Maurer said that the “high politicisation” of conflicts was causing humanitarian spaces to evaporate and that political actors must take responsibility in granting access to aid agencies and engaging in political negotiations.

“These spaces are not only necessary for providing immediate humanitarian aid, but are also an essential part of any non-military approach to achieving peace.

“If we do not bring food, medicines and baby food to occupied Syrian cities, then those goods will not be available, especially to the most vulnerable people,” he said. “There is no plan B. We have no choice.”

‘Impactful crisis’

Syria’s civil war, which is now in its sixth year and has left half the nation’s population displaced, is “one of the most impactful crises that we have seen”, said Maurer. He described the recent news from Aleppo as “emblematic” of the Syrian conflict but cautioned against overlooking similar violence in other locations both inside Syria and in countries such as Iraq and Yemen.

“The name ‘Aleppo’ has become a global rallying cry for the 250,000 people stuck in the east of the town, while the western world cheers the bombardment of Mosul, where a different brand of bombs is supposed to have a different impact,” he said.

In Yemen, the conflict is more an issue of “regional concerns” rather than strategic concerns of world leaders, meaning news of death and destruction in this nation rarely makes headlines. “What makes Syria so visible and Yemen so invisible at the end of the day is because Syria is the key preoccupation of the United States and Russia, ” Maurer told The Irish Times. “It [Yemen] has always been less prominent in terms of big power competition.”

The level of human displacement in Yemen also plays a role in the lack of international interest in the nation’s conflict. “We haven’t seen mass displacement to the extent of the Syrian conflict. It is also because Syrian refugees have a massive impact on neighbouring countries and therefore on the strategic balance in the region.”

There is a vital need for greater recognition and respect of international humanitarian law if world leaders are serious about resolving armed conflicts worldwide, said Maurer. He commended Ireland for its engagement and support in showing this respect for international humanitarian law and its record as an ICRC donor.

Displaced people

An estimated 65 million people worldwide are now believed to be displaced because of war, persecution and poverty, with 20 million living as refugees, while in recent years the average period of displacement has increased from 11 to 20 years. Instead of dying as a direct result of armed conflict, many people succumb to the long-term consequences of the destruction of health, social or water systems, said Maurer. He added that the long-term effects of conflict on children would only become clear in future decades.

“If you leave millions of children unattended and catapult them out of an education system which allows them to live their lives in a responsible and self-reliant way, you will just compound the present humanitarian problems in the future.

“Ten years ago nobody would have thought that education was a humanitarian good. What we see through the Syrian conflict is a recognition that the lack of education today is almost at the same level as a lack of food or water.”

With 150 years of experience working in war zones, the ICRC now knows that the traumatic experience of violence sometimes goes beyond a single generation. “What we fear is that while it easy to destroy infrastructure and societal fabrics, it’s extremely difficult to reconstitute them.”

Following his trip to Ireland, Maurer will travel to Moscow, Washington DC and Tehran to encourage political negotiations around global humanitarian crises.