Three million and counting: The rising humanitarian crisis inside Syria

Briefing Notes, 10 December 2013

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 10 December 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

In Syria, and since the start of 2013, UNHCR has brought relief supplies to more than three million people. This includes internally displaced people and others simply vulnerable and needing help. With Syria's crisis having now passed 1000 days, the amount of aid we have been able to deliver is still nowhere near enough.

UNHCR's assistance has reached all of Syria's 14 governorates, and each week sees a further approximately 250 trucks being dispatched. We have participated in more than 40 inter-agency cross-line missions into conflict zones. Over 35 per cent of UNHCR assistance has been to displaced persons in hard-to-reach or "hot spot" areas.

Aid deliveries are managed by UNHCR and done with the support of local partners. Our recent supply efforts have focused on helping civilian populations in Aleppo and Rural Damascus, the two governorates hosting the majority of internally displaced persons. Aid has also gone to Idlib, one of the most difficult areas to reach, and Hama, where security prevented UNHCR from delivering any assistance between May and the end of November.

UNHCR has presences in most governorates, and 370 staff. The aid we send out supports families to look after their own daily needs and typically might include blankets, mattresses, sleeping mats, diapers, sanitary napkins, plastic sheeting, jerry cans, kitchen sets and hygiene kits. So far in 2013, UNHCR has procured, stored, transported and delivered over 7.3 million separate relief items working with selected local NGO partners and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC).

Despite the scale of these efforts over the past months, the needs remain immense, and insecurity routinely prevents access to many areas. With an estimated 6.5 million people now internally displaced and many more in need of help, we have been working to provide additional support including healthcare (971,000 beneficiaries), legal protection and community services (155,000 beneficiaries), shelter rehabilitation (70 shelters) and financial assistance for the most vulnerable (175,000 beneficiaries). We have also been involved in the inter-agency effort led by WHO and UNICEF to vaccinate children against polio. Vaccines for 538,000 children were recently airlifted to Al Hassakeh and other hard-to-reach locations in north-eastern Syria.

Guest Speaker: Amin Awad, Director of UNHCR's Middle East and North Africa bureau.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Amman, Peter Kessler on mobile +962 79 631 79 01
  • In Geneva: Adrian Edwards on mobile +41 79 557 9120
  • Dan McNorton on mobile +41 79 217 3011
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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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