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Syria: access to health care a crucial need

29-08-2011 Interview

Béatrice Mégevand-Roggo, the ICRC's head of operations for the Near and Middle East, recently returned to the organization's Geneva headquarters after visiting violence-stricken areas in Syria. She shares her views on the situation and discusses the ICRC's priorities in the country.

Would you say that the current situation in Syria amounts to a humanitarian crisis?

Regardless of what you call the situation, it's clear that people are still suffering the effects of the ongoing violence – especially, since the beginning of August, in Hama, Idlib Homs, Deir Ezzor and Latakia. Since March, many people have been killed, injured or displaced. Thousands have been detained.

Whereas in Somalia, for example, there is a long-standing crisis as hundreds of thousands of people are displaced and searching for food and shelter, in Syria the main issue is not food but access to essential health care. Recently, allegations have been made to us directly that many people have been unable to seek treatment in hospitals out of fear of being arrested. We are extremely concerned about such reports.

There have also been reports of doctors, ambulance workers and other health-care personnel being obstructed from performing their life-saving tasks of evacuating the injured and providing first aid and medical care.

What have you been able to achieve, in concrete terms, since the ICRC president last visited Syria?

Together with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, we have focused our efforts on providing food and health care for those who need them most. We have so far distributed more than 3,700 food parcels and over 800 hygiene kits – enough to cover the needs of nearly 20,000 people – in Idlib, Hama, Homs, Deir Ezzor and Dara'a. In addition, we have donated triage kits, wound-dressing kits and other items for the treatment of wounded patients to private and government hospitals and to Syrian Arab Red Crescent branches in those cities.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent has also provided food parcels, blankets, mattresses and medicines for the neediest in some 20 cities, towns and villages affected by the unrest. The ICRC, together with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, will continue to assist displaced people who are prevented by the situation from returning to their homes.

Has there been any change in your ability to bring aid to those who need it?

Since the ICRC president visited Damascus at the end of June, there has been a feeling that the dialogue between the ICRC and the Syrian authorities has been more positive and fruitful, and that it has led to better access to areas where there is a need for humanitarian aid. The authorities have responded more speedily to our requests and they have been more cooperative. Only last week, I myself accompanied ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent personnel to Homs, Hama and Latakia, where we met with Red Crescent volunteers and toured areas hit by the current unrest. Another joint team went to Deir Ezzor, where relief supplies were distributed.

I was impressed by the courage and determination of young Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers who carry on with their activities even when the situation is difficult or dangerous. It is important that they be allowed to perform their tasks unhindered and in safety.

What are your remaining concerns?

The availability of health care and the safety of medical personnel are major concerns. Anyone wounded or sick should be able to obtain health care, and medical staff and facilities should be protected at all times. This is crucial in such a situation!

We have repeatedly called on all concerned to respect and protect medical staff, whose mission, of course, is to save lives and provide care for the injured. The ability of ambulances and first-aid volunteers of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to rapidly evacuate and treat injured people can make a difference. It is literally a life-or-death situation at times.

Another aim is to be able to obtain access even more swiftly to areas where people are likely to need humanitarian aid. In coordination with our main partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, we would like to be able to provide basic assistance as quickly as possible. In addition, a minimum level of security has to be maintained to enable humanitarian work to take place.

Finally, another priority for the ICRC is to visit people held in places of detention under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior in accordance with the organization's standard working procedures. A confidential dialogue is being conducted with the Syrian government on detention-related issues. The procedures and arrangements for ICRC visits to detainees have been agreed on, and we are confident that the visits will begin very soon. This very positive step comes as a result of our president's visit and of the continuous development of our dialogue with the Syrian authorities.



Béatrice Mégevand-Roggo