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“A Nightmare Every Six Months”: UN Security Council Extension of Cross-Border Aid Keeps Millions of Syrians in Dangerous Limbo

A United Nations Security Council (UNSC) vote to renew the cross-border resolution UNSC Resolution 2642, providing humanitarian aid for another six months through Bab al-Hawa into northwest Syria, keeps millions of Syrians trapped in a perilous limbo, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said today. 

Syria’s humanitarian access has been stuck in a cycle of political gamesmanship at the Security Council for years. Yesterday’s extension will require the Council to vote again in July 2023 for further reauthorization of aid through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. The crossing is the only remaining available route for international aid into the region of northern Syria, which currently serves 4.2 million Syrians dependent on supplies delivered through that access point. The closure of Bab al-Salam and al-Yarubiya crossing points in 2020 exacerbated the near collapse of the public health care system in the northeast of Syria. 

While the renewal is a temporary victory for health and humanitarian workers in the region and for millions of Syrians, health and human rights experts with (PHR) call for more permanent solutions to solidify the flow of humanitarian aid in Syria. The situation is exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and a cholera outbreak declared in September 2022. As of 22 December 2022, 28,359 suspected cases and 522 confirmed cholera cases, including 15 associated deaths, have been reported in northwest Syria.

“While we breathe a sigh of relief today that this aid lifeline was not closed, Syrians desperately need a long-term solution,” said Houssam al-Nahhas, MD, MPH, Middle East and North Africa researcher at PHR. “The repeated six-by-six month renewals and brinkmanship around cross-border humanitarian access into Syria jeopardizes the lives of civilians already experiencing shortages in basic quality access to healthcare. Amidst a cholera outbreak and harsh winter conditions faced by Syrians, the UN Security Council must do more to ensure reliable, long-term humanitarian aid to the more than 4 million Syrians in need in the northwest.”

From the UNSC authorizing cross-border aid operations into Syria in 2014 through the last border crossing renewal, 53.8 million beneficiaries received critical health aid. Of those, 46.5 million were reached from Türkiye through the Bab al-Hawa crossing and the now-closed Bab al-Salaam crossing. These essential mechanisms ensured that children received routine vaccines, facilitated the implementation of multiple rounds of polio campaigns, and allowed UN agencies to reach 18.5 million beneficiaries with life saving medical supplies following the declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic in 2020. 

The Bab al-Hawa crossing is the last lifeline to outside aid for millions of Syrian civilians since 2020 due to vetoes on their reauthorization by permanent UNSC members Russia and China.

While the most recent renewal of UNSC Resolution 2585 in July 2022 called for a special focus on developing different aid delivery mechanisms, particularly crossline operations, the feasibility and effectiveness of such operations have proven largely insufficient over the last year. Out of the only five convoys that have been deployed through this alternative modality, the supplies delivered could serve only 200,000 residents out of the 2.9 million living in Idlib alone. Healthcare providers in the region receiving medical supplies through this mechanism reported to PHR that supplies delivered every five or six months barely covered their needs for a few days.  

“We welcome this brief respite as a life-saving measure. But it is a disgrace to the UN that Russia, who is party to the conflict in Syria, and its ally China continue to hold Syria’s humanitarian aid hostage,” said Erika Dailey, director of advocacy and policy at PHR.

Last year, PHR urged UNSC member states to extend the renewal of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing authorization to at least 12 months to allow NGOs and other humanitarian organizations to plan their programs in Syria and ensure execution of aid delivery. PHR also calls on member states to reauthorize the Bab al-Salam and al-Yarubiya crossing points in order to ensure equal and adequate access to humanitarian aid for populations in need across northern Syria.

“We can’t relive this nightmare every six months. It is unacceptable to have life-saving aid be a topic of discussion, debate, and precarious negotiations every six months at the UNSC. With the known threat of a Russian veto, the UN and the international community should look for innovative solutions to ensure sustainable flow of aid to these most affected communities in northern Syria,” said al-Nahhas.

PHR has independently corroborated attacks on healthcare facilities and personnel since the start of the Syrian civil war. Since March 2011, the Syrian government with the support of the Russian allies carried out at least 542 attacks on health care facilities, killed more than 831 health care providers, and arrested thousands of medical professionals.

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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