December 18, 2013

GENEVA/NEW YORK—Greatly increased humanitarian aid must be delivered across Syria’s borders, the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) urged in an open letter to a group of countries meeting at the United Nations tomorrow to discuss assistance for Syrians in desperate need.

The “High Level Group on Syria” meeting in Geneva follows an October 2 UN Security Council presidential declaration instructing the group to make initial recommendations for facilitating the delivery of aid inside Syria. However, urgently needed assistance delivered across Syria’s borders to populations living in opposition areas is not on the agenda. The UN believes such assistance constitutes a “red line” for the Syrian government. Nearly all international humanitarian aid is transported via Damascus.

“If the Syrian government remains the main channel for the overwhelming majority of international humanitarian aid, millions of people will continue to be deprived of adequate assistance,” warned Dr. Joanne Liu, MSF’s international president.

UN agencies and international organizations are subject to tight controls imposed by the Syrian government, which limits or prohibits the distribution of humanitarian aid—particularly medical aid—in opposition-controlled areas.

These obstacles have led to a total blockage of humanitarian aid for people living in enclaves controlled by opposition groups and surrounded by government forces, such as in the Ghouta region. Furthermore, the five to seven million people living in opposition-held territories close to Syria’s international borders receive no medical aid and get only minimal material assistance from Damascus, underscoring the urgent need for increased cross-border aid deliveries.

Invoking the risk of government reprisals against their activities in Damascus, UN agencies have abandoned efforts to negotiate cross-border access to populations in opposition areas. People in those areas survive only because of the work of Syrian solidarity networks and a few nongovernmental organizations, including MSF, which provide aid through bordering countries, specifically Turkey. Given the sheer scale of the needs, existing cross-border aid remains sorely inadequate.

“The High-Level Group on Syria must support humanitarian access to all victims of the conflict, whether from Damascus or from bordering countries,” said Dr. Liu. “While in some areas aid is also blocked by certain armed opposition groups, cross-border assistance into opposition-held areas is a crucial issue that cannot be taken off the humanitarian agenda, lest millions be left without assistance. The High Level Group must use its influence on all parties to ensure the immediate opening of humanitarian access in Syria," she said.