TRANSCRIPT OF PRESS CONFERENCE BY UN EMERGENCY RELIEF COORDINATOR UNDER-SECRETARY-GENERAL VALERIE AMOS IN GENEVA ON 19 FEBRUARY 2013
19 February 2013
Ms. Amos: Thank you very much and good afternoon everyone. This is the seventh Syria Humanitarian Forum, and the focus of today’s Forum was on securing access to the millions of Syrians who desperately need help.
The situation in Syria is getting worse. The violence is causing widespread destruction and having a devastating impact on the lives of ordinary Syrians, women, men and children. On my fourth visit to Damascus in January, I was conscious of the constant shelling and I have seen firsthand the destruction of lives, of infrastructure, and the erosion of basic social services like health and education.
The UN estimates that 70,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the crisis. People do not feel safe or secure. The number of people in need has quadrupled since June last year. More than half Syria’s public hospitals have been damaged; many of those that are open lack basic supplies like antibiotics and painkillers. One in five schools has either been destroyed or is being used as a collective shelter. Some 400,000 out of about 500,000 Palestinian refugees need humanitarian assistance.
And the flow of people out of the country continues unabated. Over an eight-week period from mid-December, 255,000 Syrians fled their country. And out of the 860,000 refugee total, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are together sheltering 97 per cent; and we are all very grateful to the governments and people of these four countries and all countries that have kept their borders open to Syrian refugees.
Humanitarian agencies are trying to keep up with the rising needs. The World Food Programme is scaling up to meet the needs of 2.5 million people by April. About half of their current 1.75 million beneficiaries are staying in opposition-controlled or contested areas. UNICEF and the World Health Organization with their partners have reached more than a million children with vaccination campaigns against polio and measles, many in areas held by opposition groups.
We are crossing conflict lines, negotiating with armed groups on the ground, to reach more people in need. But we are not reaching enough of those who require our help. Limited access in the north is a major problem that we can only solve using alternative methods of aid delivery.
We know that humanitarian action alone cannot solve the problems facing the Syrian people. This crisis requires a political solution and I hope that all who have influence with the parties will succeed in bringing them to the negotiating table as soon as possible.
We are watching a humanitarian tragedy unfold before our eyes. We must do all we can to reassure the people that we care and that we will not let them down.
Today’s forum was an important opportunity for us to exchange views and take a common approach to the very serious challenges we face in bringing help to the people of Syria and I thank the Government of Switzerland for hosting the Forum.
Thank you very much. I am here with colleagues, including from our partner UN agencies who I think are scattered around and we are available to take questions. Thank you.
Q: Ms. Amos, you said just right now the Northern part of Syria is a big problem. The same was told by the Red Cross some days ago. My question is: all the time since two years when you started delivering aid to the Syrian people, you insist on going to the Northern part in Syria through either Damascus or Lattakia. And I don’t understand really why you don’t cross the border from Turkey to join these people and to help them.
Ms. Amos: It’s very straightforward. We are bounded in the way we do our humanitarian work by a General Assembly resolution of 1991 which is GA resolution 46/182. That resolution makes it absolutely clear that in delivering humanitarian aid, you have to seek the consent of the affected country. That is the government of Syria. The government of Syria have made it very clear that they will not accept materials coming over from the border with Turkey. So without a separate Security Council resolution, the United Nations and its partners are not able to come across that border. That is why we have focused on cross-line and being able to take things from government to opposition-controlled areas inside Syria itself.
Q: Good afternoon. Could you update us on the funding situation? As far as I remember in Kuwait, at the conference, the countries and organizations pledged more than 1.5 billion US Dollars but still you have an 87 per cent funding gap. So do you think that this funding gap could be bridged?
Ms. Amos: Well, in terms of the money that was pledged at Kuwait, since the Kuwait conference, we have been in contact with all the member states that pledged. We think it’s important to turn those pledges into commitments so we can scale up our efforts on the ground and we are also talking to those donors about how they would like that money to be used, so which aspect of either the Syria Response Plan or the Refugee Response Plan for neighbouring countries would they like to support. Some donors will also be giving some of that aid bilaterally to a number of NGOs. So I soon as we finalize those consultations, we will of course make public how that 1.5 billion is being spread across the different agencies and we will know exactly what the shortfall is for the next six months.
Q: The information you gave is of course very interesting but it’s what we hear, unfortunately, all the time. I am not really sure what the focus of your meeting was, what you actually accomplished, besides talking about this. The need is to gain access to more people. Have you come up with some sort of a plan? One of the things I am thinking of is sometime back there was an agreement with the Syrian government – the Syrian government actually proposed 44 non-governmental organizations, mostly international I think or local, and we haven’t heard anything since about that, whether the UN has signed on with any of these, whether this has helped, so I would like to know how you are going to get to the people you need to get to.
Ms. Amos: Thank you. The World Food Programme for example will be working with up to 78 local partners if they are able to get the agreement with respect to the additional 28 that they are seeking to work with. UNICEF and others are also looking at a number of new partners – you will understand that the Syrian authorities having identified 110 organizations, our organizations then have to do their own due diligence and vetting. The ACU will also identify organizations that they would like us to work with and we will do a similar vetting and due diligence process with those organizations. So we are scaling up our efforts in terms of working with those community-based organizations on the ground, but their capacity still remains small compared to the need that we need to reach inside of the country. The Syrian authorities have also agreed to three additional international NGOs. We are currently working with eight, that will take the total to 11, but again, given the scale of the needs we are talking about, we would like to see agreement to more. We had asked for 10 additional international NGOs.
Q: A quick follow up on that, sorry. Which organizations are they and are you having difficulty getting visas for the organizations that have been approved or not?
Ms. Amos: We currently have 17 visas outstanding for humanitarian staff. The agreement to the three international NGOs was only just given so we will have to go through the administrative processes for those three organizations to get their teams on the ground.
Q: You mentioned alternative ways, alternative methods of aid delivery. What are you talking about? Thank you.
Ms. Amos: We are looking at increasing our cross-line operations, so over the last three weeks, for example, UNHCR and others have managed to get substantially more support into opposition areas. You need to understand that the operating environment is such in Syria that there is really only one frontline which is way up in the north of the country, near Turkey. For the rest of the country, what you have are towns and cities where areas or parts of those cities’ neighbourhoods are controlled either by the government or by the opposition or are disputed. So, cross-line operations are difficult, but they are doable, and in the last three weeks we have seen that we can do those and we want to increase the number of those that we are doing.
Q: I’m sorry, just a small follow up. When we are talking about cross-line, you are talking about line between government forces and opposition forces. Is that true?
Ms. Amos: Yes.
Q: You said that in Syria we are watching a humanitarian tragedy unfold before our eyes and it is very important that we - and I assume you mean the UN – let the Syrian people know that the UN won’t let them down. I’m just wondering how you propose to do that concretely though, because, I mean, I think with the best will in the world from the humanitarian wing, the Syrian people are being let down, aren’t they?
Ms. Amos: Well, I think it’s not just about the humanitarian situation. I think the key tragedy here is that the international community has not found a political solution to this crisis. So, what we now have, because we don’t have agreement around the UN Security Council table, what we have is a situation which started off as a political crisis, which has become a major humanitarian and human rights crisis. So it’s important, from my perspective, that we do all we can on the humanitarian side to try to meet the needs of the people inside Syria and in neighbouring countries - and not just the refugees, also the communities that are hosting those refugees, where there is a huge amount of strain being put on the services of those neighbouring countries- that we do all we can but this is essentially a crisis that requires a political solution.
My colleague Lakhdar Brahimi is doing all he can to bring the different sides together but that’s why I said in my statement to the Forum and again in my statement to you that I think that all of those that have any kind of influence with the different parties, that they should be doing all they can to bring those parties to the negotiating table so that we see a solution to this crisis. If this crisis continues to drag on, the impact in terms of what is happening to people on the ground, what is happening to those who are fleeing across the border into neighbouring countries, what is happening in terms of the impact, in terms of loss of life, it will just become bigger and bigger. Just in the last two months, over 250,000 people have fled into neighbouring countries. These numbers, they are not sustainable.
Q: Can you please identify the three NGOs that have now been granted access and also can you say a bit more about the food situation because you keep talking about these targets but as far as I’m aware, in January, even 1.5 billion wasn’t met, so how can you possibly overcome these obstacles?
Ms. Amos: Mercy Corps, NRC and Merlyn are the three new ones. In terms of the targets, WFP when it has the money available is able to meet its targets. They’ve worked very hard on ensuring that they have the capacity, which is why they are looking at adding a number of community-based organizations to the ones that they are already working with. So, yes, it’s a target, but a target that is achievable with the resources and the capacity available.
Q: I understand that there was some controversy about allowing some of the opposition attend this meeting, can you perhaps shed some light on that?
Ms. Amos: Yes, this is of course a humanitarian forum and it’s our very strong view that as a humanitarian forum those actors engaged in principled humanitarian delivery inside of Syria should participate in the Forum. The ACU is the coordination unit that we have worked with to facilitate some of those cross line operations inside of Syria. This was raised at the Forum this morning; there were a number of Member States that supported their inclusion, however, the Government of Syria opposes it.
Q: Allow me to ask my question in French. Welcome Ms. Amos. Je voudrais poser mes questions sur les fonds disponibles. Il y a des pays qui ont bloqué de l’argent pour le régime syrien, à savoir la Suisse, par exemple. Elle a bloqué 50 million francs suisses, je crois, pour le régime syrien. Le Qatar a bloqué 700 millions, en attendant d’avoir ce fonds pour l’opposition. Et la communauté européenne, elle, a fait peut être de même mais on n’a pas une idée totale de tous les montants qui sont bloqués pour aider, pour les réfugiés, pour les sanitaires etc… Est-ce que Mme Amos peut nous donner une idée sur la totalité des montants bloqués premièrement et les fonds pour l’aide humanitaire ?
Ms. Amos: I don’t know how much money is blocked as a result of the different sanctions regimes which are in place. To use that money, there would have to be decisions taken by each of the organizations that have put those sanctions in place to enable the money to be used in that way. You may recall the example of Libya where there were UN sanctions. There was then a decision that was taken that the money could be used to facilitate humanitarian response. Inside of Libya, for example, an amount of money was unblocked to buy urgently needed medicines for Libya. So there is a precedent for this but as I said the decision would have to be taken by each of those sanction regimes.
Moderator: Let’s take all remaining questions together.
Q: Good afternoon. Lady Amos, could you give us a bit of an explanation why, after so many pledging conferences, so many experts, we see here in a table for health the pledge is only 13% of needs met so far; for water and sanitation 0%; and for education 3%. What’s the explanation? You have held so many high-level meetings with the Secretary-General in Kuwait. Is the advocacy failing somewhere here?
Q: I was just wondering if you could give a few more details - you say here there are now more than 4 million people now in need in Syria. Are there different levels of need that we are talking about and how do you see that number developing?
Q: I have a question concerning funding: you only have 20% of the money you need for the first six months of this year. Where do you think the rest will come from? Is this from the Conference in Kuwait or is more money pledged here today?
Q: I would like to know, if, given the difficulties you have to get aid through inside Syria are you trying to convince the Government to reconsider its idea not to allow you to cross the borders given the fact that it would be easier, cheaper and you will get to the victims easier. And in relation to that, how many people do you consider are in need of urgent help in the North area controlled by the opposition groups?
Ms. Amos: Thank you very much. There has been one pledging conference, I am not aware of any others – you said that there have been a series of pledging conferences .…
Journalist: the six previous humanitarian meetings here in Geneva and the Kuwait one.
Ms. Amos: They are not pledging conferences.
Journalist: But countries came here and pledged money in previous meetings as well.
Ms. Amos: But there has been one pledging conference, which is the Kuwait conference. The purpose of the Syrian Humanitarian Forum is different; it is not a pledging forum, although countries have come here and made pledges. But it has never been a pledging conference, it has been an opportunity for countries to come together to examine the various challenges facing us in terms of humanitarian operations inside of Syria and in neighbouring countries, to give support depending on the kinds of issues we have been looking at.
With respect to the appeals for inside of Syria and the neighbouring appeals: the appeals for this year are for six months, so January to June, just over a billion dollars for the Refugee Response Plan, and 519 million for work inside of Syria. Now we currently have 100 million for work inside Syria and 200 million for the Refugee Response Plan. That does not include the 1.5 billion that was pledged at Kuwait because, as I said earlier, we are currently going through those pledges with the countries to identify the proportion of that funding that would come through the UN’s multilateral channels and the amount of that funding that would go elsewhere. So these figures will be revised once we have that data.
On the issue of what are the urgent needs inside of Syria, well I think it’s important to remember two things: one is that infrastructure has been destroyed, a lot of people have lost their jobs, the currency - there is complete inflation in the country so the value of the currency has gone down significantly. So you have a lot of people who, even if they are not internally displaced, are having difficulty in, first of all finding things like bread but then also buying it because the prices have gone up substantially; the health sector has been particularly affected because of the damage to hospitals and to clinics, but also because Syria used to produce the majority of its medicines in factories close to Aleppo: those factories are no longer producing.
Then you have the people who are displaced, who are in urgent need of shelter, who need blankets, it is still winter. You have people who need food aid, we heard earlier about what the World Food Programme are doing. A lot of people requiring psycho-social support, a lot of people who are traumatized by what’s going on. We have to make sure that the vaccination campaigns continue, because if not, there is a risk of children getting diseases that normally are very easy to control. So a range of needs inside the country which are both for those people who are displaced but also just for people who are vulnerable as a result of the conflict.
And with respect to the Turkish border, I have spoken to the [Syrian] government on a number of occasions about allowing us to bring in supplies across that border. My last conversation with them was yesterday, the answer remains “No”.
The ACU have calculated that there are over three million people in need of aid in opposition-controlled areas - that is not just in that Northern belt.
Q. I would like to come back to that funding and sanction issue, because we had the opportunity to hear the representative of WHO office in Damascus and the lady told us that the Syrian government had money to buy medicine for the population and that they were not allowed to do so. So that is something that she told here the press so I would like to have your reaction on that. And I would also like you to be a little bit clearer on the NGOs. How do you decide with which NGO you are going to collaborate in order to be able to provide assistance as much as possible, humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people?
Ms. Amos: In terms of NGOs operating inside the country, names have been given to us by the Syrian government. Those names are then vetted by the UN agencies, who then make a decision about whether or not they can work with those NGOs. On the international NGOs, we have a list of international NGOs we have worked with in many other parts of the world. We submitted ten names to the Syrian government, and they have agreed to three. We continue to press for more names from that list to be included. And on the issue of the medicines, yes I have been in discussion with the WHO representative in Damascus.
Q. Yes, you have talked with the representative, but the problem is that apparently the Syrian government is not allowed because of the sanctions to buy medicines abroad, outside of Syria.
Ms. Amos: So that becomes an issue for the countries with the sanctions regime, as I said earlier.
Thank you very much.
For use of the information media; not an official record