A humanitarian opening in Syria?

Emergency food supplies for Syria arrive at an airport in Iraq in August 2013. The Syrian government announced that it would allow the United Nations to airlift relief supplies from northern Iraq. Humanitarian access to the conflict-ridden nation has always been an issue. Photo by: WFP / USAID / CC BY-NC

Humanitarian access to Syria has improved in recent weeks due to “a change in attitude” from the regime, but conditions were still deteriorating for those affected by the ongoing conflict, according to the Oxfam country director.

“We’ve definitely seen an opening in recent weeks, and it’s insufficient, but it’s very much welcome,” Gareth Price-Jones told reporters during a conference call on Friday.

Since April 2011, aid groups have had limited access to many conflict-affected areas in Syria. International NGOs have been forced to work undercover and through local partners to avoid endangering the lives of staff members.

In October, the U.N Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs listed 15 registered iNGOs in the country, including 11 in Damascus. Price-Jones, however, noted he has counted only 9 international groups in total.

“There are a lot less iNGOs there than we would normally expect,” he explained. “We’re hoping that number will increase, because we rely on each other for a lot of support.”

Good progress

A large part of the Oxfam country director’s job is to convince the government of his organization’s motives to work in Syria.

The effort seems to be paying off: Syrian officials have shown more support for the new U.N. humanitarian hubs and in terms of getting teams out into the field, expert staff into the country and aid shipments through the border, said Price-Jones, adding that 18 out of 20 visa applications submitted by Oxfam since March have been approved.

“My hope is that they’re a bit more confident that we’re coming in as genuine humanitarian organizations, and that’s being reflected in the greater assistance they are providing us,” he explained.

Humanitarian access has remained a major issue throughout the conflict. A recent Human Rights Watch report placed blame on both sides, but was especially critical of the government’s obstruction of humanitarian groups. OCHA chief Valerie Amos also blasted the authorities for blocking humanitarian aid convoys from Turkey, before the government announced it would allow the United Nations to airlift relief supplies from northern Iraq.

As winter sets in, the humanitarian crisis has worsened inside Syria and in refugee camps in neighboring countries. Many Syrians are exhausting their “coping mechanism” as the conflict drags on, said Price-Jones.

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About the author

  • Paul Stephens

    Paul Stephens is a former Devex staff writer based in Washington, D.C. As a multimedia journalist, editor and producer, Paul has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Washington Monthly, CBS Evening News, GlobalPost, and the United Nations magazine, among other outlets. He's won a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for a 5-month, in-depth reporting project in Yemen after two stints in Georgia: one as a Peace Corps volunteer and another as a communications coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development.