23 March 2016
JE: We are making further progress in getting access to the civilian population in Syria and we are concentrating, in the taskforce on humanitarian access, on the besieged areas but also equally important the so-called hard-to-reach areas. Importantly, last night we were able to reach – with an inter-agency convoy of UN, ICRC, and Syrian Arab Red Crescent – Al Houla in Homs. That is important, of course – the last UN convoy to this place was in October. Since January it has been terrible in Al Houla, and 56,000 people getting assistance in these last 24 hours is important.
We also reached over the weekend western Aleppo: the Orem area. This was coordinated with cross-border convoys from NGOs from the north. So now the Aleppo area is reached both from the north and the south, cross-border and cross-line. Altogether, we will distribute this note that shows that we are now up to 384,000 people reached since the beginning of the year via inter-agency convoys in hard-to-reach areas, besieged areas, and other priority cross-line areas.
Now that will be more than doubled in the next weeks, and before the end of April, in part because we have gotten eight or nine of the 11 areas we had asked for in the monthly plan for April. We already got verbal assurances from the Government of Syria that we can reach these places. We have verbal green light to go to some new besieged areas in rural Damascus, but not yet to Douma or Darayya. We are concerned about those two places; Douma has 95,000 people and Darayya much fewer, but there are civilians there and they are in a very difficult situation. We are working hard to get to Douma, and we are working hard to get an assessment mission into Darayya.
On the problematic area of medical relief, we made some progress in the sense that medical kits did go through to Al Houla after a lot of negotiations. Surgical material was not and was again offloaded. So we will be working hard to ensure that surgical equipment can get through. It is a war zone; civilians and others need surgical help.
We will also work hard to get the medical evacuations, which are not working either at all as they should.
Finally there is progress in the big vaccination campaign. Vaccination of children is symbolically important in a conflict, and especially in a peace effort. There is nothing more symbolic than children being able to resume school and being vaccinated against diseases. One million children in hard-to-reach and in besieged areas will be reached in April. That is the plan of UNICEF and WHO; they are on track for doing this. We are assigning homework to the members of the taskforce down to village level, saying when we will go as UNICEF and WHO to vaccinate against a series of diseases in three rounds starting now, and being complete within the next two months.
Q. We got yesterday information that there are new places under government siege in Syria, and some existing sieges that have been enforced. What information do you have about this situation?
JE: Indeed there are new areas of great concern. One such area is al-Waer, a part of Homs which has become inaccessible and where needs are very high. There will be a special effort from the Office of the Special Envoy to mediate there, so that the local agreement will work again. That local agreement has broken down. We still operate with 18 besieged areas on the UN list, we have a series of the hard-to-reach areas. Out of those 18 areas with new permits, we can go to 15 or 16. It is only Douma and Darayya that remain, so we are making progress.
We also think that we will soon be able to report that we are doing air drops to Deir ez-Zor. It is a major effort now by members of this taskforce. It includes Russia, the United States, Canada and the European Union, and several of the countries in the region. Jordan is helping with doing trial drops in the desert. We will be able to reach Deir ez-Zor and then we will be able to actually cover, we hope soon, all of the besieged areas.
Q. This weekend, Mohammed Alloush from the High Negotiations Committee accused Russia of using food to bargain reconciliation with some villages in the Damascus area. Do you have information on these bargains? And what can you do against it?
JE: I have no information on that. Our aim is that humanitarian organizations, the UN, the Red Cross and Red Crescent family and non-governmental organizations should be able to reach everyone in need, cross-line or cross-border. Of course the biggest group that we are not reaching are those in IS[Islamic State]-controlled territory.
Q. Can you say if there has been any progress on the detainee issue?
JE: The detainee issue is being dealt within the negotiations. There has been promised support from some taskforce members to enable the release of detainees, so the Special Envoy will coordinate this and we will all assist him. I hope that we can see progress in this area and then the priority will be women, children, elderly, sick and wounded groups, who do not at all belong in jail and should be released immediately.
Q. Could you follow up on your answer about Deir ez-Zor? Last week you mentioned that within 10 days or maybe one week you could make these air drops. Could you be more precise as when you will do this operation and what will be the Russian participation in this operation?
JE: World Food Programme is working very hard to realize this. Whether it is one or two weeks I do not know, but it is not months, it is days and weeks. Russia is providing meteorological information and advice. They know the area well, so as many other countries. I heard the UK meteorological services were providing meteorological information as well. It is a major effort of east-west-north-south to help the poor people of Deir ez-Zor: 200,000 civilians, mostly women and children. And we are not reaching them by road, we have to do it by air.
Q. I just want to clarify a little bit about the besieged areas. When we saw you last, six days ago, you said that the Government of Syria had seven days to give an answer on access to six besieged areas. Well obviously they have one more day so maybe they haven’t given their answer yet, but you said just now that you received eight or nine verbal assurances out of 11 requests. Are we talking about the same thing? What about the besieged areas? You didn't have any reply? And what action can you take if they refuse to give you permission?
JE: Unfortunately it is confusing as we are dealing with both the besieged areas and the hard-to-reach areas, and they are all in this list of 11 places to be prioritized in April. Of those, eight or nine have been granted. So six of the 11 areas are besieged places we have not so far gotten permission to go. Of those we got verbal assurances last night and again this morning, but not in writing yet, that four of these besieged areas we covered. So again out of the 18, we have 15 or 16 covered by either the green light or concrete plans. Two remain: Darayya and Douma. Darayya and Douma are on our list, but they still have until actually mid-next week to answer to the one-month plan, because we set seven working days, and there’s been like two working days since the last meeting only in Syria. I hope and I pray that there will be an answer back that is possible both for Douma and Darayya, the remaining places. We need these two places and we are particularly very concerned with potential horrific needs among the relatively few civilians remaining in Darayya.