21 December 2017
JE: This was indeed a stocktaking meeting of the Humanitarian Task Force of the International Syria Support Group. We were from the UN’s side putting very bluntly to the Member States, those who have influence on the ground, the facts. And the facts are not good. I remember the last stocktaking in December 2016, we felt that now, it cannot get worse, it has to get better, 2017 will be better. I thought it would be better – and I was wrong. I many respects, 2017 got even worse. We are now in the seventh war year, and it is not getting better.
The number one indicator of how we are faring is the number of times civilians have been displaced. The number of times they have to leave their homes, their closest, their dearest and flee for their lives. Well, in 2017, 2.6 million times a child, a woman or a man had to flee inside Syria. In 2016, it was 2 million times.
So 7,700 times per day a child, a woman or a man fled because of violence in Syria, that’s a small town fleeing every single day for an entire year.
It wasn’t equally bad through 2017. We had a good period from, I would say, end of May until August when it was more quiet, and we can thank the de-escalation zones agreement of the Astana partners for their influence on calming down this horrific conflict.
But since August, it’s been very bad all over, and in October and November between 700,000 and 800,000 times a person had to flee in Syria. It is the two worst months for the two last years: October, and last month, November.
Of course no other place did so many people flee for their lives in the last two months as in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, where a cruel occupation of the so-called Islamic State ended in a very bloody retaking of territory.
If we look at returns, there is progress, so more people were able to return to their areas in part because it became quiet in some of the major cities. According to UNHCR, 720,000 people could return and did return home in the first nine months of the year, until the end of September, that’s many more than in the entire 2016 when 560,000 people returned. And many have seen the return increase as a sign that things have become better in 2017. Well, when three to four times more people flee as those who return, I don’t think it is a good balance sheet for 2017.
We failed too many people in 2017. For 2018, families are debating whether to try to return or not - as refugees and as internally displaced. A survey shows about half of the Syrians displaced have not made up their minds whether they will try to return or not.
Just over a quarter will return, 27 percent, and then many actually want to integrate where they are. So the family jury is out, really: should we risk it and go back or not, and at the moment most are seeing things as being too unsafe and there had been too little to return to in Syria as of late.
We have to do better in 2018, both in security and in providing facilities to return back to.
What about the main purpose of the Humanitarian Task Force, and how did we succeed there, which is to provide support to the hard-to-reach and besieged areas? There are much fewer living in hard-to-reach areas at the end of December this year, compared to last year. Five and a half million people in hard-to-reach areas including all of the Islamic State held territories at that time, compared to 3 million people now. More than twice as many, 975,000 people, lived in besieged areas in December of last year, compared to the 420,000 in besieged areas today.
However, and in spite of there being fewer people to try to reach in besieged areas, we had lower success rate in 2017 than we had in 2016. In many months we reached only 10 or maximum 20 percent of the people in besieged areas. In December we haven’t reached a single soul. All our attempts have gone in vain, we haven’t gotten permission from the Government or from the parties concerned to go to a single besieged area, so far in December. So we are ending with the worst month, it seems, since we started our work in February last year.
That is in contrast to the overall humanitarian response, which is very impressive in Syria, there are a lot of very courageous humanitarian workers providing for a lot of people.
7.6 million people on average get some form of assistance every single month, 7.6 million people of the 13.1 million people in some need, well over half, get support every month.
About two thirds of this is delivered within Syria and from and to Government controlled areas, 37 percent. Over one third goes cross-border to opposition controlled areas, and that is why it was an enormous relief for us, who are humanitarian workers, that the Security Council did the right thing and extended the authorization for cross-border work for another 12 months, and they did that this week.
2.8 million people get assistance every single month on average through the cross-border relief given by non-governmental organizations and UN agencies.
Nowhere is more at stake than next door to Damascus, the capital. In eastern Ghouta, very close to Damascus, there are nearly 400,000 people and they are besieged. We have tried now every single week for many months to get medical evacuations out, and food and other supplies in. We have over the last couple of months only reached 28,000 of the nearly 400,000 people with food and other supplies. So when in the beginning of November our colleagues found that one third of children under five were stunted because of malnutrition, and 12 percent were suffering from acute general malnutrition, it was the most shocking finding of malnutrition overall since the war started, and it is next door to Damascus, where there are enormous warehouses full of what they need in eastern Ghouta.
Since then few, very few, hardly anyone has gotten real relief, it is worse now. And we have seen in October and November that food still available on the market is only available to the most affluent. The price now is eight times what it was in August and September, so a single mother with five children cannot afford to buy anything, she is reliant on supplies that we are unable to give because we do not get permission from the Government to go.
494 people were on the priority list for medical evacuations. That number is going down, not because we are evacuating people but because they are dying. I informed the task force today that on the 14th of December, while we were meeting and we were having a press conference, a nine months old child from a place called al-Marsh, in eastern Ghouta, died. The child had a tough start, congenital cleft palate, it is a condition that is bad in your mouth, but that was not the reason that the poor child died. The child died because of severe acute malnutrition and because not being evacuated in time to reach the doctor that could have saved the life of the nine-months-old.
Let me end actually by this desperation around the medical work. The health crisis is a crisis within the crisis. Again, let’s remind ourselves: for many years, Syria has been the number one country in the world for attacks on health workers and health facilities - has been, still is.
It is also a place where medical equipment, surgical materials and medicines had been removed or reduced in quantity from all UN inter-agency convoys during 2017, as it was before. It doesn’t mean that all medical equipment is taken away, but 50 tons were taken off and 123 tons of the WHO, World Health Organization, supplies went through. So more than the third is taken off and that is often the things that are most life-saving for the wounded, for those who need acute trauma treatment.
This has to end. How can we take Christmas holidays in safety, in peace, in affluence while the most innocent in this bitter conflict are suffering the most, are dying? Not because there was not relief, not because there were not people willing to go there even in great danger, but because they were part of a power play between mostly well-fed men with power and with guns. This has to change, this was my message to the countries in this group who can influence the parties on the ground, and it is not only eastern Ghouta, there are smaller groups of civilians in Foah and Kafraya besieged by armed opposition groups, as there are in Yarmouk, the old Palestinian refugee camp, and the reason we are not going there is this obscene tit-for-tat: I am not letting you get to the civilians I besiege unless my friends in another place get relief which means that no one gets relief.
Question: All of this year you have repeated what you have just said today that humanitarian aid had not reached the needy people, but at the same time during this year you have spoken many times about Russian promises, engagements, letters, meetings etc. promising that Russia will help to get this aid. So at the end of the year how do you assess these promises? The role of Russia on humanitarian access, what do you think that Russia can do better?
JE: Russia, Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah with lots of people on the ground can all do more with the Government, that’s very clear. They are over there with military hardware, with soldiers, they can do more, must do more. It has not all been bleak in 2017, we have had dozens and dozens of convoys to places where we would probably not have been able to go at all if it hadn’t been for diplomatic help by Russia and others. But we are ending now with complete paralysis this year and it is a shame. But I also haste to say that Foah and Kafraya are besieged by armed opposition groups, in Idlib there is a lot of others who have influence in Idlib, they haven’t been able to help us there either. There is homework for everybody and homework has not been done well enough by those there and those who suffer are of course the children in the cross fire.
Question: Last week in this room we asked Mr. de Mistura regarding this medical evacuation from eastern Ghouta and he did tell us that he raised the issue with the Government side during the talks but he couldn’t get a satisfactory answer from the Government side during the talks. In this case, are you still going to wait for a positive answer from the Government side or will you take a different step this time, or do you think the Government side is committing a war crime in eastern Ghouta right now because we are talking about 500 children, wounded and sick and no medical evacuation is possible.
JE: We are unarmed humanitarian workers, doctors, nurses, we cannot go to a besieged place, besieged and encircled militarily without permissions from those who besiege. And in eastern Ghouta it is the Government forces or Government aligned forces besieging so we are reliant on a green light and the so-called facilitation letters, that has not come, that could come tomorrow. There is no formal response yet, the list has been there in various forms since May, and the 490 plus names have been resubmitted several times over the last two months.
I think part of the problem, however, is that it is an ongoing war. It is true that there come mortars out of eastern Ghouta to Damascus and they kill and wound civilians in Damascus, it is true. Just as there are air raids killing even more people inside eastern Ghouta. That has nothing to do with the right of evacuating, and obligation to evacuate civilians, wounded.
It is true that there are detainees inside, and that they are in bad shape, there should be a detainees’ exchange, that should be completely de-linked from feeding children and evacuating children. It is true that it is an unsafe area and there is fighting there, but we can de-conflict, we can go, we are willing and able to go. There are even some commercial trucks going in and out of eastern Ghouta, of course we could do this medical evacuation, so I think really there is no argument against it, neither there, nor in Foah, Kafraya and Yarmouk which is another problem of other parties involved.
Question: Just to follow up, how about the war crimes? Do you think the Government side is committing war crimes?
JE: You know, I am the humanitarian worker, I leave to the lawyers and experts to characterize what it is under the law.
Question: You gave us the number of patients, but since news came out a couple of months ago, how many people have died, patients have died, in total, are they all children? And back to this reason, why the Syrian Government is not giving you the permission, does it have to do because the fighting is going on in Ghouta and missiles being lobbed from there, and what about the influence of Russia, my colleague has mentioned that, but is Russia toothless in this situation? Doesn’t it have the ability to pressure Syria, I mean it has been its faithful ally for a while now?
JE: We have confirmation of 16 having died on these lists since they were resubmitted in November, and it is probably higher. It is hard to monitor these lists because they are spread out over many places. I fear that there will be many more, and I fear that during this Christmas and holiday season there will be more deaths unless we get the evacuation going. They have to be evacuated to get the treatment they need to save their lives in the short, medium or longer term.
Back to Russia and others, this is a task force co-chaired by Russia and the US, we have gotten support in many places for convoys, de-confliction, diplomatic support and so on. We are working with the two co-chairs in a complex operation to reach Rukban, which is the desert area just on the Syrian-Jordanian border, haven’t been able to do that either in the recent weeks, I hope we can do it very soon. I believe all members of the task force want to help us, I think all can do more, they should be able to have influence commensurate with their military and economic investment in Syria. And at times I wonder, really, why there isn’t more influence, but I see a very bitter war where we are having a reduced impact as the months go.
We are getting no formal response but the arguments I hear are: you should rather be interested in other areas, you should know that we are being attacked from there, you should know that they have detainees that they do not release, you should know about all the bad things that the other side is doing, which is exactly what we heard from other sides also. We hear that on both sides of the conflict all the time, that’s why I say it has to be de-linked from that. I am saying also to the countries, you have to be blunt and say: forget about all of those other arguments, these are children, these are wounded, these are women, they have nothing to do with this bitter political military struggle.
Question: It is particularly about what you were saying about de-linking the two, because this is something I heard from quite a lot of senior humanitarian officials in the last few months, I am just wondering, you have appeared many times with Staffan de Mistura, the whole issue of aid access has been very public, and it is regularly mentioned as part of the peace process as part of the diplomatic process, and I was wondering whether you think that’s an issue as we see now very basic humanitarian access has become a bargaining chip, would you prefer to keep a much lower profile and just have your staff quietly, practically negotiating a little bit of access here or there, I know it is hard.
JE: It is a good question, I mean humanitarian work can be, and is routinely contaminated by political and military considerations. At the same time, there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems. If we are going to get out of this quagmire it is because there will be political agreements really. So I hope that out of Astana meetings the next couple of days we will have some kind of impulse for a change on the humanitarian side. This humanitarian task force came out of a meeting at ministerial level of the [International] Syria Support Group in February 2016 in Munich, and within 72 hours we could roll to places where we’d never been before. So I want them to help me do my job and I want to repel any attempt to bring it in to our civilians, if you like, as a bargaining chip in a bitter political conflict.
Question: To follow up on your expectations on Astana, and also if there is any prospect of a peace deal, ceasefire, some sort of deal in eastern Ghouta, because I have read stuff about that but you haven’t mentioned it.
JE: I hope there will be a cessation of hostilities in and for eastern Ghouta. That would also certainly help us in getting in supplies before hunger grips the whole population, and also get wounded and medical cases out. The irony is of course that eastern Ghouta was declared de-escalation zone once, and for a period of time, it was - it is not anymore. We need re-energized efforts and I would be happy if it came now from Astana, the Special Envoy will be there, will come there, and we have a technical team, but this is led by Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Geneva, 21 December 2017