Syria: as needs increase, ICRC and Syrian Arab Red Crescent step up assistance
Béatrice Mégevand-Roggo, the ICRC's head of operations for the Near and Middle East, shares her reading of the situation in Syria and discusses the joint efforts undertaken by the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to assist people affected by the violence.
How do you view the current situation in Syria?
As violence continues, the situation in Syria – especially, in recent days, in Homs – is a source of considerable concern to the ICRC. Our view of the situation is always closely linked to the impact it has on the population, and in this case there is no doubt that Syrians are enduring the consequences of the continuing violence. The death toll is reportedly on the rise, as is the number of people injured or detained.
However, the huge differences in the situations in various parts of Syria make it difficult to generalize about the country as a whole. When I was in Damascus a few weeks back, it seemed to me that daily life was normal and that people were going about their daily business as usual, even though, economically speaking, the crisis was already having an impact on the capital as well. I also went to Homs and Hama, however, and people in both cities were tense and worried. Following last week's surge in violence in Homs, the situation has become much more difficult for the population with some parts of the city being almost cut off from the outside world.
With each day of violence, the population is edging closer to a dangerous humanitarian situation which will have long-term repercussions. Obviously, it is the casualty toll that is most worrying, but let's not forget that the economy, education and essential services in a number of areas have been badly affected since the beginning of the unrest.
Why is the ICRC not as outspoken as others on Syria? Does this mean that it does not consider the situation to be bad?
The ICRC's priority is always to think about victims first. This means that our main focus is on assessing the situation and assisting accordingly and in the fastest manner. The fact that the ICRC does not always express itself publicly on the humanitarian situation by no means indicates that we are satisfied. As long as we are convinced that bilateral and confidential dialogue is the best way to help people, that is the way we will continue do our work. What matters in the end is that help reaches the people who need it most, and that conditions improve for them.
Is the ICRC able to carry out its activities despite the difficulties?
Together with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, we have managed since the first weeks of the violence to assist people in affected areas such as Idlib, Homs, Dera'a, Deir-Ez-Zor, Al-Bukamal, Rural Damascus governorate, Hama and Latakia. We have even been to some areas, like Homs and Idlib, several times. However, these visits have not been sufficient to enable us to do all that we wanted to do at a time when our services are needed the most.
Emergency health-care services and, especially, first aid and medical evacuations provided by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent are urgently needed and have saved many lives. However, the Red Crescent volunteers take considerable risks carrying out their humanitarian activities. There have been reports of medical and other health-care staff being deliberately prevented from performing their tasks of evacuating the injured and providing first aid and other medical attention for those who need it. This is not acceptable, because providing health care for the wounded and the sick, no matter who they may be, is a basic humanitarian requirement.
As the situation worsens in some areas like Homs, Idlib, Rural Damascus, Hama and Dera'a governorates, we are afraid that needs, including for such essential items as food and drinking water, and for urgent access to medical facilities, could increase significantly. If this turns out to be the case, and if the health care available and the aid provided do not keep pace, the impact on the population will be all the more severe.
What are the ICRC's priorities for the coming period?
We will continue to work with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent on meeting the most pressing needs. In addition to the support already being provided for health-care facilities, private and public, and for branches of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, services are needed that reach people when and where they require them, without undue delay. We are obviously aware of the security risks our work entails, but we are willing to expand our activities if the conditions are at least minimally acceptable.
Visiting detainees is another priority. In September, for the first time in its 44 years of working in the country, the ICRC was allowed to enter a place of detention, the Damascus Central Prison. We hope that that visit was only a first step. The ICRC conducts its visits in accordance with strict procedures that allow it to have a clear picture of the situation inside places of detention. It must, for example, have access to all detainees and be able to talk in private with any of them and to visit the entire premises. These conditions, and their purpose and value, are currently being reviewed with the authorities concerned. We are hopeful that the discussions will pave the way for visits to other places of detention in Syria in the near future. It is not equally urgent to visit all of them. We are starting with the central prisons, but our intention is to eventually gain access to all persons detained in Syria.
Because the ICRC's objectives are exclusively humanitarian, the organization's visits to detainees do not confer any special status on the detainees visited. The visits do not constitute interference in a State's internal affairs, as they are agreed upon with the authorities concerned. ICRC findings are shared with the authorities on a strictly bilateral and confidential basis with the aim of improving the situation where needed.
The Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the ICRC have focused their efforts on providing food and health care for those who need them most.
More than 8,000 ICRC food parcels and over 800 ICRC hygiene kits have been distributed – enough to cover the needs of nearly 48,000 people – in the governorates of Idlib, Hama, Homs, Deir Ezzor, Rural Damascus, Lattakia and Dara'a. In addition, the ICRC has donated, among other things, dressing kits and other medical equipment to private and government hospitals and to Syrian Arab Red Crescent branches and clinics in those areas. Moreover, the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have together started distributing 30,000 school kits to the neediest children affected by the unrest in several places.