Syria: "You have to focus on each life saved"

Article, 08.11.2012

Interview with Manuel Bessler, Humanitarian Aid Delegate of the Swiss Confederation

Since the outbreak of the conflict in March 2011, the humanitarian situation in Syria has continued to deteriorate. The violent confrontations are causing severe suffering in the civilian population; there are shortages of medical care, food, and water. More than 300,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries. We asked Manuel Bessler, Humanitarian Aid Delegate of the Swiss Confederation, about the support being provided by humanitarian aid actors in the field.

Manuel Bessler visited a refugee camp in Jordan (Zaatri camp), November 2012. (

Manuel Bessler, the crisis in Syria has continued now for some 20 months – and an immediate end does not appear to be in sight. What is your estimation of the humanitarian situation in Syria and the region?
The situation is extremely critical. And it will continue to deteriorate as long as the hostilities persist. The coming of winter now makes matters even more complicated. And even as the death toll has mounted into the tens of thousands, the total number of people affected has risen into the millions. There is also a regional dimension to the crisis, which should not be underestimated. Syria, once a country where Palestinian and Iraqi refugees were able to settle, has now itself become a place from which people are fleeing. The massive influx of refugees – more than 360,000 so far – is creating difficulties in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. You have to imagine what it means that even a country like Iraq is providing help for more than 44,000 Syrian refugees.

Access to people in need of help inside Syria is difficult, if not impossible. The cease-fire that was agreed for the end of October was not respected. According to United Nations figures, roughly 2.5 million Syrians need emergency aid. How is it possible for humanitarian actors, such as Switzerland's Humanitarian Aid, to get any assistance at all to the civilian population in need?
Gaining access for humanitarian actors to the people who need assistance is truly very difficult. And this is not just because of the combat operations and the absence of protection for humanitarian actors; there are also innumerable administrative hurdles. For example, the Syrian government has still given only a handful of non-governmental organisations permission to work inside the country. Even the UN receives only a small number of visas for its international aid personnel.

In view of these conditions, how is concrete aid even possible?
Despite all these hurdles, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN, and their partners, have already managed to reach hundreds of thousands of people in need. To mention just a few examples: since the beginning of 2012, the ICRC has distributed food and water to over 1 million people, as well as medical supplies for hospitals. Approximately 1.5 million people have received food from the UN World Food Programme. The World Health Organization has provided medical support for some 60,000 people. Thanks to UNICEF, 23,000 children are receiving psychosocial counselling and schooling.

This augmentation of humanitarian assistance, accomplished within a relatively short period of time, is indeed impressive, and it was made possible not lastly by the growing number of local partner organizations which carry out the assistance operations on the ground. Switzerland's Humanitarian Aid has backed up these efforts by lending its support since 2010 via the UN Development Programme to an NGO platform in Syria. Its mission is to strengthen the role of civil society in the development process in Syria. The majority of the UN's local partners are members of this platform.

With the closing of the Swiss Embassy in Damascus in February 2012, the SDC also had to close its office there. How have operations been organized since then?
Switzerland's Humanitarian Aid is now coordinated from the SDC's cooperation office in Amman, in Jordan. In order to meet the most urgent needs of displaced persons and victims of violence, the SDC works closely with its humanitarian partners operating inside Syria. Nearly half of Switzerland's CHF 14 million commitment for the Syrian crisis has been allocated to them. We provide support, among others, for the ICRC, the WFP (World Food Programme), UNICEF, and UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works agency for Palestine Refugees). Through the Jesuit Refugee Service, the SDC is also making it possible for 10,000 displaced persons in the city of Aleppo to have at least one cooked meal a day in the winter months.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees, most of them women and children, have fled to neighbouring countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon. What is Switzerland doing to help these refugees?
In the neighbouring countries, the SDC is providing aid at three levels: donating money and supplies to humanitarian partners; cooperating in bilateral operations with the countries concerned through programmes already in place on the ground; and sending experts from the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit to assist the international organizations.

One concrete example is Switzerland's financing of various programmes run by the UNHCR and the WFP for improving the living conditions of the refugees. Assuming the responsibility for providing the refugees with shelter and food is no small matter: the costs are substantial. It is therefore essential that the humanitarian organizations operating in the region be supported, so that they can continue to provide such assistance without interruption.

Switzerland is also providing direct assistance in Jordan and in Lebanon, countries that have to deal with new inflows of refugees every day. In Lebanon, the majority of the refugees find shelter with host families, often relatives. In the region of Wadi Khaled, near the Syrian border, this is the case for 91% of the refugees. For the host families, these additional members often represent a heavy and additional financial burden. The "Cash" project, supported by Switzerland, provides financial relief for 500 host families in Lebanon, meeting the needs of some 3,500 refugees.

With the assistance of Swiss experts and local partners, development projects are being carried out by communities that shelter the refugees. These projects include the construction of schools, playgrounds, and a social and medical infrastructure.

In spite of the support that Humanitarian Aid is able to provide, don't you feel a certain sense of powerlessness given the sustained nature of the conflict, the sheer size of the humanitarian challenge, and the enormity of the refugees' plight?
Security guarantees for humanitarian convoys would make it possible to reach the affected persons and to respond more rapidly to their needs. Unfortunately, these conditions are not in place, and it is frustrating. But despite all the difficulties inherent in the situation in Syria, any aid that can be distributed, no matter how small, is worth the effort. Even if our room for manoeuvre is limited in the high-risk zones inside Syria, we do have greater access in the neighbouring countries, where we are able to get aid directly to the refugees. The distribution of medicine, medical care and food, and maintaining the supply of drinking water are indispensable. When they flee the combat zones, the refugees leave everything they have behind. They are completely destitute, often unable even to keep up with the medical treatments they require. The elderly and the children are the first to suffer. You have to focus on each life saved.

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