Coronavirus: UK urged to ensure aid reaches Syria to prevent ‘catastrophic’ damage

‘If the two border crossings into north-east Syria are not authorised, the humanitarian cost would be unimaginable’

Kim Sengupta
Diplomatic Editor
Friday 01 May 2020 23:04
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A member of the Kurdish Internal Security Forces urges children to return home in Syria's northeastern city of Hasakeh on Thursday 30 April
A member of the Kurdish Internal Security Forces urges children to return home in Syria's northeastern city of Hasakeh on Thursday 30 April

A Labour spokesperson has warned that the British government must put pressure on the UN Security Council to ensure vital cross-border aid reaches millions of people in Syria amidst the coronavirus pandemic, or cause ‘unimaginable’ damage.

The UN Security Council voted to renew the Syrian humanitarian mission last December, but halved the number of crossing points into the country from four to two, in order to avoid a veto by Russia.

It also limited renewing the humanitarian operation from a year, as it had done in the past, to six months.

As well privations from nine years of war, Syria has begun to suffer as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), fewer than two-thirds of the country’s hospitals are operational, and 70 per cent of healthcare workers have fled the country.

Two crossings from Turkey, to access people in North-West Syria, are currently open.  But the situation is particularly hazardous for people trapped in Idlib and North -East Syria, where the last rebel held area is surrounded by Assad regime forces.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has warned that testing for coronavirus in the area is hugely difficult, and physical distancing impossible in the vast displacement camps.

Anna McMorrin, Labour’s spokesperson for International Development, said conditions are deteriorating and becoming more perilous while two crossings, from Iraq and Jordan, remains closed and the UN deadline of 10 July for renewing the mission draws closer.

In a letter to Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the Secretary of State for International Development, Ms McMorrin said: “I am urging you to ensure the UK uses its global influence to push the UN Security Council to renew and expand the current resolution.

“The omission of UN Security Council support for the renewal of two crossings at Al Yarubiyah and Al Ramtha, bordering Iraq and Jordan respectively, in north-east Syria is already significantly the ability of the UN, partners and humanitarian agencies to continue to provide aid to populations in need.

“If the UN Security Council resolution is not renewed in July, and the UN, partners and humanitarian organisations are forced to stop the two border crossings into North West Syria, the damage to our humanitarian response would be catastrophic. Similarly, if the two border crossings into north-east Syria are not authorised, the humanitarian cost would be unimaginable.”

The shadow minister said she also wanted to stress the urgent need to protect the vulnerable communities from the pandemic, pointing out: “Currently the only way the international community can take action to prepare, prevent and respond to Covid-19 is through cross-border aid ... global leaders cannot allow the incubation of the virus, which threatens the lives of most vulnerable and may also jeopardise the health of citizens at home if a second wave stemming from low-income and fragile nations is the result of our inaction.”

More than 2.7 million people in north-western Syria and 1.3 million in the north-east rely on aid from the cross-border operation, according to UN calculations. The Security Council approval is needed for it to take place as the Damascus regime has withheld consent for the deliveries.

During last vote, Karen Pearce, Britain’s ambassador to the UN, accused Russia of politicising the vote on behalf of its allies, the Syrian government.

She said: “Syrian people have seen many sad days since 2011, but this day is potentially one of the saddest because it is the first time that a Security Council member has chosen to play politics with humanitarian assistance, Russia is playing dice with the lives of the Syrian people in the northeast.”

But Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia insisted: “All these cries about imminent catastrophe, disaster, which northeast faces if we close one cross-border point is totally irrelevant because humanitarian assistance to that region is coming from within Syria.”

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