Read caption NRC Secretary General Jan Egland visits a heavily damaged school in Harasta, Eastern Ghouta. Half the school is totally destroyed. Photo: Tareq Mnadili/NRC

Statement to the Security Council Briefing on the Humanitarian Situation in Syria

Published 27. Jan 2022
By Jan Egeland, Secretary General of the Norwegian Refugee Council

27 January 2022

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Madam President, UN Security Council Members,

Thank you for this opportunity to address you about the humanitarian situation in Syria.

I have visited Syria and Syrian refugees in neighboring countries numerous times since the beginning of this cruel, decade-long war. I returned again in December, travelling to Dara’a in the south, which was recently struck by renewed armed conflict, as well as Damascus and Eastern Ghouta.  

While Syria has faded from international headlines, the situation on the ground has gotten dramatically worse. The armed conflict continues to cause death, destruction and displacement among civilians, as we have seen in recent days in the northeast. At the same time, the socio-economic crisis, exacerbated by drought, is now so deep that families had this recurrent message when I met them: “We’ve gone from war to hell.”

While I was there, I met with most of my 200 colleagues working for NRC’s country office, as well as with humanitarian partners. I also spoke with aid workers in both the northwest and the northeast.

Syrian civilians feel prisoners of a manmade, political stalemate that has crippled all hope among children and youth, as well as among the millions of refugees lingering in neighbouring nations.

We need help to lift Syrians out of this suffocating paralysis. We ask help from you as members of the Security Council, and from you as influential powers with parties and actors in the region, in eight specific areas. Forgive me for being blunt, but the situation demands it.

  1. Help end access restrictions on all sides of the conflict lines

Humanitarian work is still too often held back by administrative, logistical, legal and physical barriers. We need more effective humanitarian diplomacy with parties and actors that so that aid can reach all Syrians in need.

Russia and others can help on the government side, where we are, for example, still unable to provide legal aid to displaced people and to returnees. Turkey and the US can help with de facto authorities in opposition-controlled areas.

Humanitarian aid is by definition neutral and impartial. So, use your humanitarian diplomacy to solve the myriad of obstacles. Humanitarian space and action need to be de-politicised so we can reach all people in need.

  1. Negotiate solutions to conflicts in Idlib and other areas

There must be renewed efforts from all sides to reach a negotiated and peaceful settlement to the conflict in the northwest. Three million extremely vulnerable civilians live in opposition-controlled areas. Most lack the bare minimum shelter, civilian infrastructure and basic services including water, sanitation and healthcare. Tents were buried in snow last week.

We cannot allow a war to rage in what is in reality a gigantic string of displacement camps.

Many of the fighters and their families were sent there on buses from besieged areas elsewhere as part of ceasefire agreements. All conflict parties, including the Russian and Syrian governments, and those who can influence armed opposition groups, including Turkey, must renew their efforts with UN mediators to reach a negotiated solution and prevent a potential bloodbath.

Meanwhile, civilians must be able to seek protection. Neighboring countries, in particular Turkey, already generously host millions. Now is not the time to close borders. Now is the time for international responsibility-sharing to ensure that Syrian civilians are granted their right of protection and asylum according to the Refugee Convention. 

  1. Enable the resumption of a well-functioning deconfliction system, including adequate mechanisms for monitoring, investigations and accountability for attacks

Hospitals, displacement camps, apartment buildings and markets are still bombed and attacked in Syria in blatant violation of international humanitarian law.

Deconfliction is the tool to ensure conflict parties are aware of and actively protect civilian, medical and humanitarian sites. Such notification systems should include all parties with an air force and/or heavy weaponry.

The UN-led deconfliction system for Syria needs to be relaunched with rebuilt trust among humanitarian and medical actors, and with the participation of all relevant parties, including Russia.

To be effective, the system needs continuous monitoring of both the purely civilian nature of deconflicted sites, and monitoring and reporting of all attacks, including near misses. There must be immediate investigations of attacks and accountability for potential war crimes.  

  1. Ensure continued cross-border and crossline relief beyond July 2022

Efforts to increase crossline humanitarian assistance must continue within Syria. But the UN-led cross-border operation to the northwest must continue beyond July. It cannot be replaced by an NGO-led response or by crossline programming.

An essential lifeline to millions of Syrians and the protection of thousands of humanitarian workers is at stake.

We call on you as the UN Security Council to ensure a continued UN-led cross-border response from Turkey, to improve conditions for crossline responses out of Damascus, and to secure a continued transparent accounting of aid delivery in Syria.

We urge you to engage with the Government of Syria, the Government of Turkey and all armed groups in control of territory, to reduce bureaucratic impediments for crossline response.

  1. Secure access to water and agreement around water ways from the north

Millions of Syrians are devastated by severe drought, by the reduction of water from the Euphrates river, and other human-made disruptions, such as to the Alouk water station which serves almost half a million people.

The bombing of a water station on 2 January has worsened critical access to water for people in Idlib city. We call on the Syrian and Russian air force and other conflict parties to ensure water infrastructure is not attacked.

We urge Turkey to ensure unimpeded access for maintenance of the Alouk water station to ensure its continuity. We ask all actors to respect water-sharing agreements, and to ensure that water is not used as a political bargaining chip.

  1. Support rehabilitation of civilian infrastructure and services

Civilians affected by war have the right to assistance and essential services, irrespective of who controls the territory. Yet, any longer-term programming for rebuilding of homes, schools and services inside Syria is highly politicised, in particular what may be termed “reconstruction”.

It was heart-breaking last month to see again how the schools, clinics and water works in once thriving towns remain in utter ruin across conflict areas.

Without more long-term, multi-year financial support for rehabilitation and rebuilding, millions of children will remain without access to education, water, electricity and healthcare. Children’s schools and basic services should not be held hostage to progress in political negotiations elsewhere. We urge a rethink by donor governments, development agencies and the private sector.

Counter-terrorism measures and sanctions have similarly prevented service providers and humanitarian actors from providing a timely supply of critical machines, trainings, commodities and consumables.

We welcome the recent US Government amendments on humanitarian general licenses, but we need action on bank de-risking challenges, and help to reduce the impact of sanctions on fuel, electricity, and on the public and private sectors.

  1. Enable durable solutions for refugees: relocation, integration or voluntary and safe return

The first Syrian refugee babies born in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley or in Jordan’s Zaatari camp are now 10 years old. They have never seen the land of their ancestors. Their chance of reclaiming the property of their families is reduced each year. After more than a decade of crisis, displaced Syrians deserve the right to choose whether they want to return home, resettle or integrate into the communities where they are living.

There are no real relocation program to third countries, little chance of integration where the refugees have received protection, and conditions inside Syria are still not conducive for mass return. Human rights groups have documented how some returnees have been detained and tortured. Hundreds of thousands have only rubble and destitution to return to. There is no system for monitoring, assisting, protecting and supporting those who do return.

I met families who had returned from Jordan to the Dara’a region, but who said they would try to go back to Jordan unless the economic conditions improve inside Syria. There is very little help for those who have returned to Syria from neighboring countries.

We call for the cooperation of all members of this Council to address the future of Syrian refugees. Remember that Syrian refugees who sheltered in the 73-year-old Shatila camp for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon met the fourth-generation refugees born there because the Security Council did not do what it should have in the 1950s.   

The Government of Syria should work with international stakeholders and implement much-needed safeguards to guarantee real conditions for voluntary, safe, protected and assisted return of displaced Syrians to the place of their choosing.

This requires independent monitoring of returns and conditions in areas of return according to international standards. It also requires a scale-up and diversification of legal aid programming.

  1. Close the funding gap for humanitarian operations

2021 was one of the worst years on record for civilians in Syria. We urge donor countries not to turn their backs in 2022 and to continue to provide adequate support for the humanitarian response, including to ensure Syrians receive the funding pledged last year. The gap between needs and available aid continues to grow.

The early recovery pillar of the of the Humanitarian Response Plan is only 7 per cent covered. Longer-term funding and support for early recovery is essential to allow us to adjust our response to needs on the ground.

We are ready to do our part to rebuild hopes and futures for Syrian children, but we need your help to do so.

Ends ///

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

  • In Norway: NRC global media hotline: media@nrc.no, +47 905 62329
  • In New York: Basma Alloush, Senior Policy and Advocacy Adviser, NRC USA, +1 (617) 966-0333, Basma.alloush@nrc.no