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The UN said it would continue to work with the aid agencies, despite their decision to withdraw from the UN’s “Whole of Syria” information-sharing programme.
The programme is designed to coordinate responses to the vast humanitarian crisis in Syria that has seen millions displaced, tens of thousands killed and wounded, and reports of starvation and appalling sanitary conditions in besieged cities.
In a public letter to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the 73 NGOs said it had “become clear” that the government of Bashar al- Assad had “a significant and substantial influence on the performance of UN agencies based in Damascus”.
The agencies said the Syrian government had interfered with the delivery of humanitarian assistance in “multiple instances”, including the blocking of aid to besieged areas and the removal of medical supplies from aid convoys.
They added that they had also witnessed government influence on some of the UN’s partners in Damascus, particularly the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC).
Despite efforts to coordinate relief through the Whole of Syria programme, “UN agencies based in Damascus and their main partner, SARC, have been making the final decisions, shaped by the political influence of the Syrian government”, said the letter, signed by groups including the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) and the Syrian Civil Defence.
Speaking to FRANCE 24, SAMS president Dr Ahmad Tarakji said the situation had been “deteriorating for some time”.
“Many people who are in need have been completely abandoned in non-government held areas,” he said.
One major concern was that aid is ending up in the hands of military groups, said Tarakji.
“There are unconfirmed reports of [aid being] held back or distributed based on certain groups’ loyalty to the government,” he said.
He gave the example of the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta, where he said there were a number of people in need of dialysis.
“The [number] of people on that list has now halved, because those people have died because aid was taken off convoys,” he said. “I’m shocked. I can’t find any excuses for that.”
Another case highlighted by the NGOs was that of conjoined twins Moaz and Nawras, who were born in Ghouta in July.
They were evacuated to government-held Damascus in August following an appeal from humanitarian groups but “were trapped waiting for treatment”, according to the NGOs.
“Syrian NGOs sent a complete proposal through UN OCHA to SARC offering to provide medical treatment, we received no response,” said the letter.
The twins died on August 24, according to SARC, while waiting to be taken abroad for surgery.
“They died just because they were born in the wrong time, in the wrong place,” said Tarakji.
The drastic decision to suspend cooperation with the UN follows an investigation by the UK’s Guardian newspaper that claimed the UN had awarded aid contracts worth tens of millions of dollars to people closely associated with Syria’s Assad, including a charity set up by his wife.
UN ‘to continue to engage’ with NGOs
However, the UN told FRANCE 24 it will continue to “engage” with the NGOs” in order to improve our collective efforts and reach as many people in need as possible in Syria”.
“It is vital that we recognise the tremendous work of Syrian NGOs, who are often the first responders on the front lines, providing assistance to millions of Syrians in desperate need,” added Amanda Pitt, OCHA’s chief spokesperson.
She said that it was too early to say how the NGO withdrawal from the information-sharing programme would impact the aid effort, saying OCHA was “waiting for further analysis from the field”.
The NGOs called for a “transparent and visible investigation” into the political influence of the Syrian government on the aid effort before they would consider rejoining the UN’s Whole of Syria programme.
They also requested that a monitoring body be set up to provide oversight of humanitarian coordination in Damascus and a revision of the medical evacuation processes in Syria.
Asked what steps the UN was taking to address the NGOs’ concerns, Pitt said that the intergovernmental body “continues to highlight our impartial and neutral role in aid and protection efforts – and we continue to speak out on this regularly in briefings, statements and interviews – because our work is guided by the humanitarian principles and the needs of people who require assistance, regardless of who or where they are”.