Syrian relief work hampered by U.N. failings, aid groups say

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Aid organizations working in Syria say they are growing frustrated at how the United Nations is handling the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, accusing it of excluding them and withholding information vital to assist millions in need.

A United Nations vehicle towing a trailer with humanitarian aid arrives at a besieged area of Homs February 12, 2014. REUTERS/Yazan Homsy

A letter obtained by Reuters which was sent to several U.N. Security Council members this month by international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in Syria says a lack of coordination by the United Nations means assistance is not reaching some civilians in priority areas.

In other regions of the country the U.N. does not inform other aid groups when it brings aid, leading to “potential duplication” of deliveries, the document said.

Syria’s war has killed 150,000 people and poses an enormous challenge for relief workers. Nine million people inside the country need aid and protection, industry and agriculture are failing, and 2.5 million refugees have fled abroad.

Funding shortfalls combined with restrictions imposed by Damascus and by the fighting have hampered relief efforts.

But the NGOs suggested that shortcomings in the aid operations were aggravating the situation, calling on the United Nations to demonstrate greater leadership, improve coordination and demand better access.

U.N. officials in New York, Geneva and Damascus declined to comment on the NGO report, but U.N. emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos has repeatedly said the Syrian government and rebels have not done enough to allow aid in to besieged areas.

President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and to a lesser extent rebels fighting to overthrow him have been accused of preventing food and medicine from reaching a quarter of a million people in besieged areas, seeking to starve opponents into submission.

Syrian authorities also frequently dictate how aid is distributed by U.N. agencies, who are legally obliged to work with the country’s authorities, resulting in more supplies going to government-controlled areas, aid workers say.

Seeking to expand the humanitarian reach, the U.N. Security Council agreed in February that all sides must allow greater access. But U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said last week none of Syria’s warring parties was adhering to the demand.


Reuters spoke to three international aid organization that drafted the report to Security Council members. The organizations asked to remain anonymous, citing fears that public disclosure would negatively affect their work in Syria.

“U.N. agencies ... need to ensure better coordination and leadership,” the report said.

“Coordination between aid agencies operating from neighboring countries and those present in Damascus continues to be challenging, with weak U.N. systems and insufficient capacity currently in place.

“In Damascus, NGOs are often excluded from decision-making processes related to the planning of aid convoys and discussions on aid delivery mechanisms,” it said.

The report said aid groups did not take part in a government and U.N. meetings during the evacuation of civilians from besieged areas of Homs city this year. That kind of exclusion means “that information and analysis from a broader range of aid actors are often not taken on board,” it said.

“Greater U.N. action to press for diplomatic support on key access issues is needed,” it added, repeating a long-standing criticism that the U.N. has not voiced concerns loud enough when Syrian authorities impede access, such as restricting aid to besieged areas.

Amos, who is due to brief the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, has appealed to the council for more than a year for help in increasing humanitarian access.

Diplomats say that it will be tough, however, for the council to take further action. Russia, supported by China, has shielded its ally Syria on the Security Council during the war. They had previously vetoed three resolutions that would have condemned Syria’s government and threatened it with possible sanctions.


A representative of an international NGO that works in Syria and neighboring countries said the U.N. “should complement ongoing operations, not undermine them.”

“That’s a concern at the moment, that a lack of coordination between the U.N. and organizations already working on the ground means they’re sometimes doing more harm than good,” he said.

“Ban Ki-moon’s recent report (on aid access) was strong, but frustratingly it barely mentioned the challenges that NGOs have faced in delivering aid cross border and cross line in Syria.”

The report, dated April 16, said U.N. agencies are not directly providing critical humanitarian support to millions of Syrians across borders, one of the main demands which the Security Council resolution put to Syrian authorities.

On March 20, U.N. aid trucks crossed from Turkey into Syria for the first time. But the report said the operation “allowed virtually no assistance to reach civilians in opposition-controlled areas”.

It said that delays in sharing U.N. plans meant that aid during the cross-border operation was duplicated as other humanitarian groups were also distributing there.

There are eight formal border crossings between Syria and Turkey and the one used, Qamishli, is the only one where there are government forces in the area. Damascus has made clear it will not allow crossings through rebel-held border posts.

“We need the help of the U.N. to really scale up that operation and meet the huge demand for help. There are 7 million people living in areas that can only really be accessed with any ease from border countries,” the representative said.

Editing by Dominic Evans and Giles Elgood