Pressure mounts on UN to provide urgent support to north-western Syria


Pressure is mounting on the UN to provide urgent support to north-western Syria, which is yet to receive meaningful aid five days after the earthquake that devastated the region, and with the chance of finding any survivors beneath the rubble almost gone.

One convoy of six UN lorries entered the opposition-held part of the country from Turkey on Thursday at the Bab al-Hawa crossing carrying blankets and basic supplies, but that had been arranged before the disaster that has killed at least 3,500 people inside Syria and left thousands more buried under rubble.

Syrian rescue teams and citizens of the region say it has created conditions not seen at any point during 12 years of war and that death tolls will continue to increase if the UN – the world’s leading relief agency – does not find a way to expedite aid delivery.

Concerned European states on Wednesday sought advice about how to deliver essential supplies into Syria outside the UN system, which has focused aid delivery throughout the war to Damascus. The vast bulk of aid Syria’s government receives is channelled to communities under its control.

That mechanism has come under fresh challenge as the scale of the catastrophe takes shape, with the UN increasingly accused of failing the most vulnerable people on the planet by remaining wedded to narrow and bitterly contested interpretations of international law.

The soaring death toll and scale of humanitarian needs have not been seen anywhere in the world since the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011. However, unlike the response in Japan, a lack of aid and political will is likely to drastically worsen conditions in Syria, where the most basic of medical and sanitation needs are absent.

Weeks before the disaster, 16 pre-eminent international jurists, including former judges of the international court of justice, signed a letter demanding more cross-border access to north-western Syria, which was home to 4.1 million people facing desperate needs even before the quake.

“Overly cautious interpretations of international law should not risk the lives of millions who continue to rely on cross-border aid in the north and north-west, nor should they be allowed to change and politicise the landscape of international humanitarian law,” the letter said.

“Although this letter was prepared within the context of wider humanitarian disaster in Syria, we now hope that it gives Miguel de Serpa Soares, the legal adviser to the UN, the legal support his office needs to save children still trapped under the rubble in Syria as we speak,” said Ibrahim Olabi, a lawyer from Guernica 37 chambers. “History is taking note.”

Jan Egeland, general secretary of the Norwegian Refugee Council, welcomed the limited delivery, but said: “Political divides are still holding back lifesaving aid that should flow cross-border and cross-frontline from wherever there is available aid to wherever there are unmet needs. The security council should immediately authorise more border-crossings from Turkey, and the Syrian government and armed opposition should allow cross-line access wherever we need it.”

Raed al-Salah, the head of the White Helmets organisation, which is the main first responder in Syria’s north-west, said the aid delivery had been planned before the earthquake.

“It is not aid and special equipment for the search and rescue teams, and the recovery of those trapped under the rubble,” said Salah. “And this makes us very disappointed at a time when we are desperate for such equipment that will help us save lives. I confirm that nothing has been received to help us do that.

“There is no coordination with the United Nations to understand the reality and assess what are the basic issues that we face. The United Nations does not have any plan even for response, and this is a clear bias in humanitarian work and something unacceptable. It is a clear violation of the most important principle of the organisation of respecting the right to life of human beings.”

Fared Mahloul, who lives in Idlib province, said time was fast running out to rescue survivors. “So far about 30 buildings have collapsed entirely and there are still so many people stuck in the rubble. We can’t get them out. Families have to find their people on their own.

“We need supplies. Lots of supplies. Homes and buildings are no longer livable. This is a catastrophe. This earthquake killed my uncle and his entire family. My other uncle lost his wife and her three sisters. We need so many things: nutrition, humanitarian aid, milk for the children, medicine. People are sleeping in tents, in schools and public buildings and we need as much international help as we can get. This is huge and horrible. There are nightmares to come.”

Muhammad Zakwan Kouke from the charity Insan, which offers psychological support to Syrian refugees, said: “We need digging vehicles and specialist teams. We have a four-day window to turn from rescue to recovery. Now we can’t see or hear more survivors. We only have basic tools. There are at least two crossing points that are not affected and have all the necessary logistics.”

Abdel Karim Omar, who lives in Zardana village in Idlib province, said: “If we do not receive help – help that has to do with dealing with aftermath of natural disasters – then we stand to face a catastrophe of doubling the numbers of the dead and those who might otherwise survive. There are many alive still under the rubble; time is of the essence. And for those who have been pulled out they need medical care. They need shelter.”

The Syrian American Medical Society demanded an urgent change to how aid is delivered.

“For years now, aid delivery into Syria, including medical aid, has been hampered by a political process inside the United Nations security council that relitigates the provision of cross-border aid every six months,” it said. “Funnelling all aid through one crossing, and having this entry point subject to a political process, makes aid provision fragile and slow. This was always a problem, but in the wake of this earthquake it is simply not tenable.

“Avoiding mass casualties from the secondary impacts of this earthquake will require a scaling up of aid that one border crossing simply cannot handle.”

Source: The Guardian