Aid is starting to reach besieged Syrians, but full access still impeded

Food distribution inside Syria, August 2012 (IHH/Emre Karapınar/flickr)

The Syrian government is not honoring its deal to allow humanitarian aid to reach people in besieged areas of the country. The United Nations says it has gained access to 10 of 18 areas, reaching 150,000 people. The total number of people living under siege is anywhere from 486,700 to 1 million.

The government continues to actively block aid to areas where people are suffering for lack of food and medical supplies.

“Food is very scarce here. We used to depend on reserves and we could bring food in from the neighboring town but since the government tightened the siege we cannot bring in any food or medicine,” said Mohamed Shehateh, a member of the local council in besieged town of Daraya, to Human Rights Watch. “Medicine is lacking and many times we have to use expired medicine.There is only one field hospital to serve the whole city and they can’t perform many operations because of a lack of equipment.”

Aid convoys have not been allowed in the town since October 2012. The Syrian government soon after began its siege. People are reportedly growing food in their gardens in order to survive. Similarly, the 140,000 people living in the city of Douma have been under siege since October 2013. People there rely on food smuggled into the city, but many cannot afford the high prices set by sellers. One activist said people are begging in the street in order to survive.

Syria agreed to allow for unimpeded aid delivery as a part of the ceasefire deal signed at the end of February. A report on the implementation of the ceasefire says that the deal has “resulted in some positive changes on the ground.” Most notably, fighting has decreased in recent weeks and U.N. humanitarian aid is reaching more people than before the deal took effect.

Monthly reports on the situation in Syria are to be prepared by the office of the Secretary-General, specifies the Security Council resolution establishing the cessation of hostilities. The first edition covers the month of February, spanning the final adoption of the agreement on the 26th. Human rights abuses and violations of international law continued right up to the implementation date.

Taken as a whole, the report shows the toll of the five-year-old violent civil war. Active conflict directly affected the ability of humanitarian assistance to reach people in need. An estimated 4.6 million people are considered to be living in hard-to-reach areas, a designation based on fighting, road access and government sieges. Only 31 percent of the 154 hard-to-reach areas were accessed in the month of February. If the government follows through on the ceasefire agreement, many more people could receive aid.

“While aid delivery has improved in the last month, it’s still not nearly enough and too many Syrians are still not receiving the aid they need,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “The Syrian government should stop using aid as a pressure tactic and immediately allow it to reach all besieged civilians.”

And even when aid is allowed into besieged areas, not all of it passes. The report finds that in some cases medical supplies are removed from convoys before entering cities. Officials with the Ministry of Health did not allow some medical supplies, including items to help prevent malnutrition in children, to be loaded onto convoys. In another case, midwifery kits and diarrhea kits were removed from convoys in late-February.

Despite the challenges, it is a major improvement in terms of humanitarian access. The U.N. could not access anyone in besieged areas during the first three months of 2015. Reaching 150,000 is a promising step forward. The U.N. called on the government to allow full access and point echoed by Human Rights Watch. More importantly, the use of sieges must come to an end.

“All parties who are imposing the siege and attacking medical facilities, as well as committing unlawful detention, must be reminded that these acts constitute a serious violation of international humanitarian law,” says the report.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.