Syria in Crisis
A series of articles on the humanitarian toll of nearly two years of conflict
UN agencies in Syria are relocating and restricting movement of staff due to rising insecurity that is getting closer to the capital.
The UN has decided to send all non-essential international staff out of Syria and to halt all field trips outside of the capital for now.
“The security situation has become extremely difficult, including in Damascus,” Radhouane Nouicer, the regional humanitarian coordinator in Syria, told IRIN. “For as long as international humanitarian law is not fully observed by all parties to this conflict and for as long as the safety of humanitarian workers is not strictly secured, UN agencies have to review the size of the their presence in the country as well as the way they deliver humanitarian aid.”
Eight UN staff have been killed since the beginning of the conflict, most caught up in the general insecurity, in addition to 18 volunteers of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, seven of whom died while on duty.
While the conflict has raged in other parts of the country for nearly two years, the capital Damascus was, until recently quite safe.
But last week, the main airport was shut down more than once and international flights into Syria were cancelled after several attacks by rebels. On one occasion, UN staff who had just landed were stuck inside the airport while clashes took place outside. In another incident, two staff were injured when a UN convoy was caught in crossfire near the airport. Last week, several bombs went off in Jaramana, a suburb just outside of the centre of Damascus.
“The situation is significantly changing,” said Sabir Mughal, the UN’s chief security advisor in Syria. “There is an increased risk for humanitarians as a result of indiscriminate shooting or clashes between the parties.”
The internet was also shut down across the country for more than 48 hours over the weekend, with mobile coverage briefly interrupted.
New security measures
Each UN agency has assessed which staff functions are critical inside Syria, and which can be performed from abroad, at least temporarily. While the UN did not impose a ceiling on the number of international staff to remain in the country, as many as 25 - of a total of about 100 - could be leaving this week. The UN also decided to halt any new trips of UN staff into Syria, except for emergency programming staff.
Some UN agencies are also relocating staff from the northern town of Aleppo, which rebels have been battling to control. Outside of Damascus, at least one UN agency remains present, dependent on Syrian staff, in each of Hassakeh, Qamishli, al-Raqqah, Tartous, Lattakia, Homs, Hama, Dera’a, Aleppo and Rural Damascus. An office of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Deir-ez-Zor was relocated several months ago.
“The problem is that, a lot of times, the staff seem to be locked down in an office and are not able to get out and about as we like,” said Ruben Stewart, of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Impact on access
Access to affected areas and needy people was already a challenge for UN staff, who are limited by insecurity, a lack of information, and layers of required clearances from both the government and internal UN procedures.
For two-thirds of the month of November, UN security considered many main routes in the country - from Damascus to Homs, from Homs to Aleppo, from Hama to Tartous, from Aleppo-Latakiya - unsafe for travel, or they did not have enough information in order to confidently send staff on trips.
As a result, according to OCHA, of UN staff’s 156 official road missions in November, 97 were to take staff to the airport or to the Lebanese and Jordanian borders, and just 59 were field visits.
“People don’t feel confident to plan these missions with the security situation getting worse,” Stewart said.
Mughal says the UN requires more armoured vehicles, which are “vital for the safety and security of humanitarian workers while delivering humanitarian aid in a most challenging security situation.”
UN security rules dictate that staff travel in convoys of at least two vehicles when leaving Damascus. The UN has 48 armoured vehicles registered for more than 1,000 national and international staff. Many are out of service, and when they break down, it can take months for spare parts to arrive from abroad.
Insecurity has also affected the ability of the International Committee of the Red Cross and international NGOs, which do not travel in armoured vehicles, to access the field. Most aid is distributed by Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers, local NGOs and charities, and community associations or activists.
Rebels fighting the Syrian government have made several gains in recent weeks, shooting down two airplanes with surface-to-air missiles for the first time, and taking military bases on the eastern border. Analysts say the number of armed groups are growing, are more organized, and have better weapons and access.
“It’s not the same situation as six months ago,” Mughal said.
There is an increased risk for humanitarians as a result of indiscriminate shooting or clashes between the parties
Humanitarian aid convoys have increasingly come under attack in recent weeks, sometimes caught in crossfire, but sometimes specifically hijacked for their goods or the vehicles themselves. Mortars have landed and shoot-outs have taken place just steps away from UN offices; shelling can be heard on an hourly basis both from their offices and places of residence.
The UN will relocate some offices located in more dangerous parts of the capital. Offices are also stocking up on water and non-perishable food items and reviewing their exit routes.
Aid workers say national staff are not sufficiently prepared to take over operations if international staff are forced to evacuate.
“We should be focusing on capacity building in case this all falls apart,” one aid worker said.
It is a question on donors’ minds as well.
“How are you going to proceed with your operations if security deteriorates?” Edouard Rodier, from the EU’s humanitarian aid arm ECHO, asked of UN agencies. “It is clearly a concern from the donors’ side,” he told IRIN.
Many agencies have been trying to speed the recruitment of national staff in recent months to cope with the increasing scale of operations “with the view that the situation would most probably deteriorate,” Elizabeth Hoff, head of World Health Organization in Syria, told IRIN. “We are training them as long as we are here and setting up to the maximum the response.”
WFP is increasing the number of armoured vehicles in each sub-office so that monitoring operations can continue safely, strengthening the support provided by regional offices.
"If it reaches the point that UN international staff must evacuate the country, even for a short period of time, we want to make sure that operations can continue as smoothly as possible, with minimal disruption to assistance to people in need," Kate Newton, deputy country director of WFP, told IRIN.
The UN Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has had to close some of the schools and medical centres it operates for Palestinian refugees in Syria. It is distributing medicine in bulk, putting together study-at-home kits, and preparing communities to work on a more local level so that they do not need to travel far from home to access or provide services, Michael Sadleir, of UNRWA's Syria office, told IRIN.
"We have a duty to our beneficiaries, but we don’t want to risk our staff safety to do that. That’s why we have to think of alternative ways of doing things."