Photo: Taras Kalapun/Flickr
The Syrian city of Homs has been a focal point of anti-government protests
“The ability of humanitarian actors to get entry visas to Syria and operate there is constrained,” Ramus Egendal, a senior regional emergency coordinator at the World Food Programme, said.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society and the International Committee of the Red Cross are the only aid agencies with access to the volatile parts of Syria at the moment. But they have limited capacity and even their access has been inconsistent.
“This is why we need stronger and more effective humanitarian access through local organizations,” Egendal said.
Access was among the main points of discussion at the meeting, hosted by the Arab League, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and The Humanitarian Forum, which called for better coordination in the delivery of aid both inside Syria and to refugees in neighbouring countries, especially in the area of access to health care.
“Health conditions inside Syria are very bad. Syrians are in bad need of help,” said Ahmed Al Ganayny, who represented the World Health Organization (WHO) in the meeting.
Aid workers lack clarity on the exact humanitarian conditions inside Syria as most aid agencies have not had the chance to conduct a full assessment of the situation. But hospitals are reported to have run out of essential supplies; broken down medical equipment cannot be replaced; and medical workers are fleeing the violence, having been targeted on many occasions.
“Some medical workers, including Syrian Red Crescent personnel, have even been killed although they carried the badge of their organization,” Amer Awof, the head of Syrian Relief, a Vienna-based humanitarian agency, told IRIN. “Fearing for their safety, most of these medical actors have left their fields of work, leaving thousands of Syrians who are in bad need of medical assistance high and dry.”
UN agencies, NGOs and host organizations agreed at the meeting to prioritize the treatment of injured victims of the fighting in Syria, as well as delivery of medicine to patients of chronic diseases. WHO said it will collaborate with other agencies in securing supplies needed in hospitals, including fuel, generators and medical equipment.
Syrian Relief says around 35,000 Syrians have been injured, but have limited access to medical assistance. The organization says basic medicines, including anaesthetics, are about to run out.
“This means that there will be no surgeries in volatile areas inside Syria in a short time from now,” Awof said. “Kidney failure patients have no chance of undergoing kidney dialysis. Other patients with equally dangerous health conditions cannot find treatment either.”
Participants of the meeting agreed to form a network of agencies working in the health sector to share information about the exact needs of Syrians both inside and outside Syria.
|In the case of Syria, a large number of Islamic organizations want to do something, but they do not know how. If they find an answer to this question, they will do wonderful work|
The meeting in Cairo was one of several attempts to improve technical coordination between the various responders to the crisis in Syria. Another meeting scheduled for 8 March in Geneva will bring together UN agencies, the humanitarian aid arm of the European Commission (ECHO), the Arab League, OIC and NGOs.
Observers say a lack of coordination has wasted time and effort, and created frustration.
In Jordan, for example, where 75,000 Syrians have fled, aid agencies have rushed to send food aid but neglected other needs, said Mohamed Al Hadid, president of the Jordanian Red Crescent, which has tried, unsuccessfully, to send aid to Syria for seven weeks now.
“Some of these refugees have rented homes in Jordan,” he told IRIN. “This means that they need money to pay for the rent. But the lack of coordination makes this need absent from the minds of most humanitarian assistance planners.”
He said more than a quarter of the newly-arrived Syrians in Jordan were in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
In the violent year-long crackdown on anti-government protests, another 50,000 Syrians have fled to Lebanon; and 11,000 to Turkey, according to the respective Red Crescent societies. The crisis has displaced 200,000 Syrians within Syria, and pushed 250,000 families below the poverty line, Syrian Relief said.
The Arab Spring has created new openings for increasingly engaged humanitarian aid agencies from the Muslim and Arab world.
“Islamic charities and humanitarian agencies have managed to do wonderful work in volatile areas for some time now. There are tens of Islamic charities that offer humanitarian assistance in many parts of the world,” said Hany El-Banna, chairman of the Humanitarian Forum, which promotes dialogue between humanitarian actors. “I think the political changes taking place in the Arab world these days will encourage even more organizations to appear on the surface.”
The OIC, a rising power in the area of humanitarian coordination, is in negotiations with the Syrian government about opening a relief office in Damascus, according to Rami Inshasi, head of relief programmes for the OIC.
“If the government agrees to this, this office will play a major role in delivering humanitarian assistance to Syrians inside Syria,” he said. “In the case of Syria, a large number of Islamic organizations want to do something, but they do not know how. If they find an answer to this question, they will do wonderful work.”
Inshasi will be part of an OIC team that will head to the Syrian-Turkish border on 6 March to supervise the delivery of aid to Syrians who fled to Turkey. He will also lead a mission to the Syrian-Jordanian border to assess the needs of the Syrians in Jordan.
Other smaller organizations, such as Saudi-based International Islamic Relief (IIR), have been delivering humanitarian assistance to Syrians in neighbouring countries for four months now.
Mohamed Al Said, director of the IIR’s Cairo office, says his organization has already distributed hundreds of tons of food, medicines, and other needs to the Syrian refugees.