By Richard Johnson
As the crisis spawned by the on-going Syrian conflict deteriorated, with “a sharp rise in the number of Syrians fleeing to Turkey and Jordan”, the United Nations announced August 17 that veteran diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi will be the new Joint Special Representative of the world organization and League of Arab States for the crisis in the Middle Eastern country.
Brahimi is taking over the peace-facilitation role played over the past several months by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a spokesperson for the world organization said. Brahimi is expected to assume his duties following the expiration of Annan’s mandate on August 31, 2012.
“The Secretary-General appreciates Mr. Brahimi’s willingness to bring his considerable talents and experience to this crucial task for which he will need, and rightly expects, the strong, clear and unified support of the international community, including the Security Council,” a UN spokesperson said at a media briefing at UN Headquarters in New York.
He added that both Secretary-General Ban, and his counterpart at the League of Arab States, Nabil El Araby, were pleased to make the announcement of the appointment.
“Diplomacy to promote a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Syria remains a top priority for the United Nations,” the spokesperson said. “More fighting and militarization will only exacerbate the suffering and make more difficult the path to a peaceful resolution of the crisis which would lead to a political transition in accordance with the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people.”
Annan was appointed Joint Special Envoy for the crisis in Syria in late February to provide good offices on behalf of the UN and Arab League, with the aim of bringing an end to all violence and human rights violations in Syria, and promoting a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Syria has been wracked by violence, with more than 17,000 people, mostly civilians, killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began some 17 months ago. Over recent days, there have been reports of an escalation in violence in many towns and villages, as well as the country’s two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
As part of his efforts, Annan put forward a six-point peace plan, calling for an end to violence, access for humanitarian agencies to provide relief to those in need, the release of detainees, the start of inclusive political dialogue, and unrestricted access to the country for the international media.
Despite initial signs of acceptance of the six-point plan, repeated calls from international officials and the deployment of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) to monitor a ceasefire, there was little in the way of the plan’s implementation by the parties to the conflict.
Due to that lack of progress, UNSMIS’ mandate was expected to be allowed to expire on August 19 by the Security Council, while that body is at the same time working with Secretary-General Ban to keep a UN presence on the ground, through a liaison office that will continue to support the Special Representative’s efforts.
Brahimi, an Algerian national, has served the United Nations in various high-level roles over in the past two decades, including heading the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), serving as an advisor on a range of issues, and chairing an independent panel on peacekeeping operations which released its keynote findings, known as the ‘Brahimi Report,’ in 2000. Also, as an Algerian diplomat, Brahimi served with the League of Arab States from 1984 to 1991.
Rising Number of Refugees
According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of recorded refugees seeking sanctuary in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq has increased by over 12,000 – from 157,577 to 170,116 in just the three days from August 15 to 17. The real number of refugees was expected to be higher than the reported amount as “many thousands more” had not registered with authorities.
An influx of 3,500 Syrians across the border into two provinces of Turkey in the middle of the week beginning August 13 has brought the number sheltered in nine refugee camps in Turkey to almost 65,000, not all of them yet recorded.
“About 40 percent of these are people who have arrived this month (August),” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists. “UNHCR is scaling up its humanitarian assistance in Turkey and will provide family tents, blankets, kitchen sets and other relief on an emergency basis to assist the government of Turkey in addressing urgent needs.”
The number of arrivals is also rising sharply in Jordan, with 1,080 crossing the border from Syria on August 16 night, following 1,600 during the previous two nights. The Jordanian government is transferring all the newly arrived Syrians to the Za’atri refugee camp, which now hosts 7,655 people.
“More than 60 percent of those arriving at the camp this week have been children,” Edwards said. He said a Saudi donation to UNHCR of US$6.2 million would pay for 2,500 containers to replace the tents which are ill-suited to the strong winds and searing heat in the camp. UN organizations are also working together to improve other facilities such as sanitation and water.
According to the Jordanian government, some 150,000 Syrians have crossed into Jordan since March 2011, of which 46,898 refugees have registered with UNHCR and thousands more are receiving assistance from other organizations.
Registration of Syrian refugees is also being stepped up in Lebanon, with 37,240 people registered while a further 8,280 people have contacted UNCHR to be registered. A new registration centre has been opened in Tripoli.
UNHCR and its partners are urgently searching for alternative shelter for an increasing number of refugees who are staying in schools, which will be needed when Lebanese classes resume in September. Most Syrian refugees have been staying with host families but there has been a marked rise over the past two weeks in the number staying in collective shelters.
UNCHR and its partner Save the Children have also been carrying out an assessment of school places. They are working with Lebanese officials to increase enrolment of Syrian children and improve conditions for both Lebanese and Syrian students.
In Iraq, UNHCR will help Iraqi authorities expand one refugee camp and set up a fourth camp to cope with the growing number of Syrian arrivals. In all, 15,096 refugees from Syria are now in Iraq, more than 10,000 of them hosted in Kurdistan. Of the total number of refugees in Iraq, 13,856 are registered while the rest are awaiting registration.
The violence inside Syria is also forcing a return of Iraqis who had been living in Syria for up to 20 years. UNHCR will provide assistance to the returning Iraqis, who now total 26,821.
Internally Displaced in Syria
Inside Syria there are some 2.5 million people in need of support because of the conflict and 1.2 million internally displaced, according to the UN Regional Humanitarian Relief Coordinator. UNHCR must also continue to assist refugees from other countries who are living inside Syria.
“UNHCR operations in Syria continue despite ongoing shelling, explosions and armed clashes,” said Edwards. “Refugees continue to visit UNHCR offices for food, health, registration and counseling. We are also continuing our community visits, distributing relief items like blankets, mattresses, kitchen sets, jerry cans and diapers for babies to the displaced sheltering in public buildings.”
Edwards also noted that the situation in Jordan, where refugee numbers were also climbing, was equally grim. Over 60 per cent of those arriving at the country’s Za’atri camp in the past week have been children and the camp was now hosting some 7,655 people.
“At the Za’atri camp we are working to improve conditions for the refugees, including the possibility of replacing tents with prefabs,” he said, speaking of UNHCR’s relief efforts. “More sanitation facilities are also being built and the ratio of people to toilets is improving.”
Along with the refugee agency’s presence, Edwards told reporters that UNICEF was also actively participating in relief efforts at Za’atri, bringing in water to the camp on a daily basis, while the World Food Programme (WFP) was providing over 12,000 meals a day.
In Iraq, where an estimated 15,096 Syrians have sought refuge, the spokesperson said that UNHCR will continue to help local authorities expand a camp in Al-Qaem while discussions for a fourth camp in the Al-Kasak area of Rabi’aa were underway.
Despite the recent reports indicating an escalation in violence across the country, Edwards also noted that UNHCR operations in Syria were continuing undeterred, providing refugees with food, registration and counselling.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) today warned that a lack of access to medical facilities, compounded with severe staffing shortages in hospitals, was further aggravating the Syrian health care system.
Speaking at a press briefing in Geneva, WHO’s Director of the Department of Emergency Risk Management and Humanitarian Response, Dr. Richard Brennan, said that the UN health agency would continue to support four mobile clinics, serving approximately 90,000 people in the governorates of Rural Damascus and Homs.
The situation in Aleppo and the surrounding rural areas is extremely tense as fighting continues in several districts. The number of killed and wounded rises daily and thousands more have been displaced. Despite the difficulties, volunteers from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) continue to help those in need.
Some people have fled to Turkey, while others are moving from one area to another, hoping to find refuge in schools and other public buildings.
“Fighting continues in and around other cities in addition to Aleppo, including Homs, Damascus, Deir Ezzor, Idlib and Deraa,” says Marianne Gasser, head of the ICRC delegation in Damascus. “We are very concerned about the effects that the fighting is having on civilians in these areas.”
Wherever possible, the SARC helps those trapped in the fighting by evacuating the sick and wounded and by providing emergency aid. In the past three weeks, the ICRC and the SARC have supplied thousands of people with food, drinking water and other types of aid. Despite the very tense and volatile situation in Aleppo, SARC volunteers have managed to deliver emergency aid to thousands of people, most of them living in 80 schools around the city.
Over the past days, the SARC has carried out the following activities, with ICRC support:
– In Damascus, the SARC provided aid to some 25,000 displaced people staying in 62 schools.
– Between August13 and 15, in the governorates of Rural Damascus, Idlib, Hama and Homs, SARC volunteers distributed food to more than 7,000 people. In addition, the Society distributed 1,470 family food parcels and 1,070 Ramadan parcels, (each containing 1 kg of dates and 1 kg of dried apricots), 1,000 hygiene kits, 9,900 mattresses and 500 sleeping mats.
– In Rural Damascus, in coordination with the SARC’s Rural Damascus branch, aid was delivered to local committees for immediate distribution to displaced families, most of them from the Al Tal area.
– On August 12, in the governorates of Aleppo, Damascus, Rural Damascus, Homs and Tartous, the SARC delivered food to around 12,000 people, together with 4,200 Ramadan parcels (each containing 1 kg dates and 1 kg dried apricots), 2,000 hygiene kits, 2,500 mattresses and 500 sleeping mats, helping to meet the needs of some 22,000 people.
Water continues to be delivered by truck to Al Nabek (at least 60 cubic metres a day) and Tal Kurdi (at least 30 cubic metres), providing drinking water for a total of 65,000 displaced persons, ICRC said. Work continues on water systems in Aleppo, Damascus, Rural Damascus, Deir Ezzor and Homs.