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Some 2.5 Million Syrians in Need of Aid as Winter Approaches, US Contribution Tops $100 Million
September 7, 2012

Mark Bartolini

Director, Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance
United States Agency for International Development

Ben Moeling
Counselor for Refugee and Migratory Affairs, U.S. Mission Geneva

Press Conference
United Nations Office at Geneva

September 7, 2012

A man speaking, UN emblem in the background
OFDA Director Mark Bartolini Speaking at a Press Conference in Geneva

Mr. Bartolini:  I’ve just returned from Jordan.  I was out at the Za’atri Refugee Camp with the Administrator of USAID, Rajiv Shah, visiting.  Then this morning I attended the Syria Humanitarian Forum.  The message really from both those events is rather grim.  Clearly, as everyone knows, the situation is continuing to deteriorate inside Syria.

During my visit at the Za’atri Camp with Dr. Shah, we spoke to a number of refugees including children, and I was struck by a number of things.  One of the issues of concern that we’ve been hearing elsewhere is there are a lot of children arriving in the camps that are not immunized.  Syria has traditionally a very high coverage rate of vaccinations.  So we’re seeing this as a significant problem.

Obviously the fighting in Aleppo has been a problem because that’s where much of the pharmaceutical industry manufactures its medicine.  So we’re very concerned about that.

Another issue that’s very much on our radar is winter, the coming of winter.  It’s clear that of the 1.2 million internally displaced people inside Syria, many of them are in public buildings.  They’re in schools, they’re in government buildings, and many of these buildings are damaged.  They don’t have windows.  It does get very cold in some areas inside Syria.  And we know certainly from responding in cold climates like Bosnia that simply bringing in very durable plastic sheeting, covering windows, blankets, bringing in heating stoves will be critical to sustaining life over this coming winter.  And given the access issues, we’re very concerned about our ability to do that.

Having said that, I’ll also say that the U.S. government, we are reaching currently essentially all areas inside Syria through various partners with humanitarian assistance.  We’re probably reaching about 550,000 people with various levels of assistance.  We’re focusing in some areas with medical assistance.  That is obviously a huge concern.  We’re able to get in everything from critical medicines to surgical supplies.  But going forward, we’re going to be looking at winterization as well.

Dr. Shah announced in the Za’atri Camp on Wednesday that the U.S. government has increased its contribution to the World Food Program $21 million, so our total U.S. contribution for humanitarian assistance is now over $100 million in the region.

Mr. Moeling:  The one other thing that we’d like to do is just extend our compliments and our appreciation to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society which is an organization that has grown from a relatively small base into an exceptional humanitarian operation in Syria whose members are making an enormous difference at the same time as they’re making an enormous sacrifice.  We have great confidence in their abilities and we are very appreciative of the work that they’ve done and the risks they’ve taken to try to save some lives in Syria.

Media:  You just mentioned the total number is $100 million.  And this is the one announced today in your speech, you mentioned that you announced an additional effort.

Mr. Bartolini:  That’s $21 million going to the World Food Program.  That’s the additional contribution.  We’re, I think, at about $104 million right now.

Media:  Second of all, can you elaborate a little bit more about the immunized children?

Mr. Bartolini:  UNICEF has been doing surveys in the Za’atri Camp and there are concerns that a number of children have not been vaccinated.  We know that the manufacturing base has been impaired given the fighting in Aleppo and other areas of Syria.  So this is a grave concern, especially when you have what you’re seeing now with the number of IDPs and refugees, children who are congregating.  A measles outbreak could be just devastating.  These are the kind of issues that we particularly worry about when people are displaced, is ensuring especially children, children under five are particularly vulnerable, that they’re vaccinated.

Media:  I don’t know whether you directly know of this, but I heard from the UN that the [inaudible] have difficulty of getting visa from Syrian authority, especially international staff, that they’re trying to coordinate the humanitarian work on the ground.  I’ve heard that some Syrian authorities are reluctant to give visas, especially those from a Western country like the U.S. or Canada whose government is trying to criticize the Assad regime.  Do you have any —

Mr. Bartolini:  I can say that we know that the Syrian government made numerous commitments with the United Nations that revolved around the Syrian Response Plan.  And they’ve lived up to a few, but very few of those commitments.  The visas are one issue.

Clearly what we need is not only better access, but we also need a significant ramping up of the organizations, the traditional organizations that come in to respond to this level of crisis.  We’re looking at 2.5 million people in need right now; 1.2 million displaced.  There needs to be more help.

The UN works through many partners and those partners, while there are some organizations operational inside, it’s simply not enough.  The SARC is doing, we think, an excellent job as well as a heroic job, but their capabilities are limited.  One of the big problems is the lack of not only providing visas but also registration for new international organizations, humanitarian organizations, to come work in Syria.

Media:  We just heard that over one million people are in schools and public buildings.  The people that are in schools, they have to leave because there’s going to be, I think the [cap] is next week.

So do you care for their security?  Because there is no concrete plan.  Where are they going?

Mr. Bartolini:  We are absolutely concerned about that.  A number of displaced people have moved in with host families.  Clearly people that end up in these kinds of situations simply don’t have anywhere to turn and there is no solution right now for those people.  So it’s a huge concern of ours, and it’s something yet to be determined on how they’ll be accommodated.

Media:  Do you fear that part of this one million that will have to leave would actually become refugees?

Mr. Bartolini:  That is absolutely a concern as well.  We know that many many Syrians are fleeing today because of the violence, but not all of them. Some are leaving simply because they don’t have any resources.  Neighboring countries have been incredibly generous in supporting refugee populations and they’ve been getting international support but they need more.  The other way to help them is by stemming the flow.

There are areas in Syria where it’s still possible to live, and we’re trying to support those areas to make them more sustainable for people who don’t have the basic necessities to live.

Media:  You mentioned a couple of things about winterization and also the drug situation.  I can’t remember when, but I read a story about [inaudible] outside of Aleppo.  Do you have any solution to that?  Or a post solution to that?

Mr. Bartolini:  Our solution right now is just to make sure that we do whatever we can to get necessary drugs inside Syria.  We’re trying all avenues to ensure that happens. But it’s a heavy lift given the conditions inside right now with violence and with access restrictions.

Media:  What groups, can you be a little more specific about the winterization, about what —

Mr. Bartolini:  I think on winterization, some of the key items we’re going to need, again I mention plastic sheeting.  It’s not your traditional plastic sheeting.  You see it in aid situations around the world.  It’s a very heavy duty plastic sheeting that has a shelf life of about 7 to 10 years in the field.  By covering windows with that, by winterizing buildings, that will make a big difference in terms of the sustainability of those buildings.

The other things are obvious.  Just blankets and some sort of heating source.  Whether it’s diesel-fired or wood stove.  In many cold weather climates that we’ve operated in, we’ve been able to retrofit tents or public buildings with just small wood stoves that can make a big difference in survivability.

Media:  You’re getting those supplies and then going to try to feed them through the Syrian —

Mr. Bartolini:  It’s what’s available locally in Syria, it’s what can get in through other methods, it’s a wide range of efforts that are going on right now to address these needs.

Media:  You said U.S. has given so far?

Mr. Bartolini:  About $104 million to date.

Media:  Today?

Mr. Bartolini:  No, to date.

Media:  Did I get it right that you have been impressed by the work and dedication of Syrian Red Cross was it?

Mr. Bartolini:  Yes.  The SARC.

Media:  What is your interpretation that on the one hand the Red Cross in Syria is outstanding and in so many other realms the Syrian government is not so good to its people?  How do these wonderful Syrian Red Cross Society manage to —

Mr. Bartolini:  I would say that, off the top, that the Syrian Red Crescent is not monolithic.  They have different elements that have performed differently throughout the country.  Some of the work that we’ve seen and we know about is absolutely heroic.

I would also say that given the numbers that we discussed earlier, it’s simply beyond their capability to handle all the needs inside of Syria.  And they don’t have access, as well, to a number of places inside Syria.  That’s why there’s a need for a much greater commitment on the part of the government to allow humanitarian organizations inside to operate.  There simply isn’t the capacity to handle the needs.

The current appeals that are out in the meeting we had this morning, it’s clear they’re being revised and they’re going to grow significantly, probably double in size.  So there’s a need both for organizational capacity but also for resources to deal with these needs.

Mr. Moeling:  The Syrian Arab Red Crescent is not affiliated with the Syrian government and it’s not a part of the Syrian government.  So the problems with the Syrian government do not bleed over into the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.  It’s a voluntary organization that’s organized according to the principles of the international movement.  So I think that may account for why this organization does well while the government itself has been —

Media:  But may we conclude that if we had to raise both the government and the Red Cross, the Syrian government would come among the bottom of the Asian governments and the Syrian Red Cross would come at the top of the ladder?

Moderator:  I think that’s outside the realm of this discussion.  They’ve made their comments about the Syrian Red Crescent.  I think we can leave it at that.

Media:  This is aid-related.  The [inaudible] today at the press conference said that when he met with Assad that he had a lot of questions and I can’t remember the exact phrase, he said it at least showed I think it was a serious interest in presumably resolving some of the aid questions.  Can you read anything into that?

Mr. Bartolini:  I hope that’s true, but they expressed a serious interest when they did the assessment with the UN and when they drafted a report and when they made significant commitments and they haven’t followed through on those.  And right now if they don’t follow through on the commitments you’re going to see a humanitarian disaster that dwarfs what you’re currently seeing today.  So it’s a very serious situation.  I don’t think we’re overstating it, and we urge the Syrian government to make do on its promises to provide access and aid workers to come in and address these issues.

Media:  There are too many press conferences today.  Then we went to the — [Laughter] — with John [inaudible].  I think Catherine asked the question which we’ve been asking every time, which is since the signing of this agreement with Assad, it doesn’t really seem to be being implemented and to get the aid in — The first time it was really explained well was about the sort of bureaucratic choke points, I guess you could say.  The convoys weren’t getting through.  Then also the visas for the aid workers.  We’re not really getting clear answers on the status.  Can you give us any more precise answers on exactly where that —

Mr. Bartolini:  All I can say, and I think this is well known, is there are eight international non-governmental organizations that are operational currently inside Syria.  Most of them were already there dealing with refugee issues.  They have been able to expand their operations, but they’ve been limited in what they’ve been able to do.  They don’t have full access.  So they need more scope to do their work.  And even among those eight there’s not enough capacity to deal with the issues.  So there are two problems.  Building up their ability to access conflict areas and other areas, but also bringing in new aid organizations and new aid personnel.

Media:  Some NGOs have been described as [inaudible] punishment or something like that.  Would you describe it like that?

Mr. Bartolini:  I’m not going to go there, but I would say that everybody in Syria is suffering certainly from the violence, and unless there is a commitment on the part of the government and other parties to the conflict to provide access, the situation will only get worse.

Obviously the violence is the critical thing to end.  Providing aid is only one small element of the larger need for finding a political solution to this crisis and ending the violence.  But if that doesn’t happen in the near term, in conjunction with not providing aid the situation is only going to get worse and the terrible August that we just all saw in terms of greater displacement, greater refugee flows and greater deaths is only going to increase, we fear.

Mr. Moeling:  I just want to add that we absolutely have to recognize the generosity of Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan in the face of an absolutely enormous refugee disaster, keeping their borders open despite an extraordinary and unsustainable burden that’s being placed on those countries to house those populations.

That was a key part of our meeting today at the Syria Humanitarian Forum, was recognizing those countries, the commitments, those countries’ contributions and the international community’s obligation to help support them as they take on this burden.

Voice:  Thank you very much.