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In Syria, Dire Need for Humanitarian Help Exacerbated by Delivery Difficulties

July 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Secretary of State John Kerry met with international humanitarian aid officials to discuss the difficulties of trying to protect and assist the millions of people displaced by the Syrian war. Margaret Warner talks to Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard and Nancy Lindborg of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we come back to the civil war in Syria. It’s triggered a massive humanitarian crisis for the country’s 20 million people.

Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: According to the United Nations, more than four million people are displaced inside Syria. An estimated three million more have fled to neighboring countries. But the U.N. reports it doesn’t have enough international funding to meet the needs.

Secretary of State John Kerry met in Washington today with the chiefs of the U.N.’s humanitarian agencies and had this to say.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: We are having a very difficult time being able to access people, move people directly and protect people. So, we intend to have a very solid, in-depth discussion today about creative ways that we can meet our obligations to human beings who are in huge danger and under stress.

MARGARET WARNER: For more, we turn to Anne Richard, assistant secretary of state for population refugees and migration, and Nancy Lindborg, assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development in charge of conflict and humanitarian assistance. Both have been to the region in the past month and both were in today’s meeting.

And thank you both for coming in.

Nancy Lindborg, I will begin with you. This humanitarian crisis has been going on really for a couple of years now. Why did Secretary Kerry feel the need to convene all these honchos from the U.N. agencies here today?

NANCY LINDBORG, U.S. Agency for International Development: You know, it was primarily an opportunity to hear directly from them how the crisis is proceeding.

And one of the most important statements is that this is no longer just a Syrian crisis. This is really a regional crisis. And the humanitarian dimensions are no longer just an outcome of the war. They are their own crisis with the level of needs escalating, and the amount of misery as people flee the country, flee their homes inside Syria continues to increase.

MARGARET WARNER: What would you add to that?

ANNE RICHARD, U.S. assistant secretary of state for population refugees and migration: They had a good understanding of the problems. So we were able to get right down to business and talk about what else was needed.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let’s talk about what else was need.

And I will start with you, Nancy Lindborg, because AID works really within Syria. What are the challenges and the dangers of delivering aid in a conflict zone like Syria, where you have got opposing forces, two, even three or more, controlling different parts of territory? How do you do it?

NANCY LINDBORG: Well, the challenges, as you said, are really threefold.

One is the inability to access everybody who is in need. Second is the insecurity. We heard stories today and we are hear it constantly from our partners that the checkpoints, as they try to move from one place to another, continue to proliferate.

Along one road, there were 65 checkpoints manned by various factions, and both the regime and the opposition.

So it comes down to extraordinarily courageous humanitarian workers. We work with a whole variety of partners, the U.N., NGOs, and the majority of them are Syrians who are actually on the ground helping friends and neighbors.

MARGARET WARNER: And how do you actually navigate through these different — different zones? Now, you spoke in Geneva earlier this year about having to send in a heavily armed convoy, taking complicated negotiations to be able to do it.

NANCY LINDBORG: Well, they’re not so much heavily armed, as they are heavily armed with information about who they need to negotiate with.

And so it’s understanding the terrain, having the ability to call the person who can tell that checkpoint this is a humanitarian convoy. Let them go by. But it can take days. It can take four days to travel what should be a three-hour roadway.

MARGARET WARNER: And then, Administrator Richard, what about — I mean, Secretary Richard, what about the situation though in Lebanon and Jordan? Let’s take two of the neighboring countries bearing a huge burden. You don’t have an access problem there. So what are the big obstacles to delivering enough aid?

ANNE RICHARD: That’s right.

People are coming out of Syria, crossing the borders, because while some aid is getting delivered inside Syria, it’s still a very dangerous place. And so they’re safer if they cross to other countries.

But there, they have to find places to live. There are tents for about a quarter of the refugees, but most refugees are living in cities and towns and villages. They’re living with friends. They’re living with relatives or they’re living with strangers or paying rents.

And so they need help too, but they’re harder to find and they’re harder to help.

MARGARET WARNER: So, how dire are the needs or how unmet are the needs? The U.N. said, in announcing this new request just, what, last month, for more money, that they were like three billion short, I think, just toward the end of the year. What isn’t getting done?

ANNE RICHARD: The scope of this crisis is so big, it grew so quickly and the numbers are just unanticipated and quickly rising.

And so, as a result, we’re constantly playing catchup to provide the assistance that people need.

MARGARET WARNER: But are people going hungry now?

ANNE RICHARD: No. The U.N. has done a great job in getting help to people that need the help. But the problem is that we don’t see it stopping any time soon.

And the longer this goes on, the more acute people people’s needs are. They run through their savings. They become a burden on the people who are hosting them.

There’s the possibility of tensions with host communities in countries like Jordan and Lebanon, where they’re expecting their government to help them and they see refugees getting aid.

So, one of our approaches that we endorse is to help local citizens, as well as the refugees. Anybody who needs help, the idea is to get them the help that they need, so that they continue to host the refugees.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what came — what, if anything, came out of today’s meeting in terms of getting more funding, getting — I know the United States has given a third of the funding so far, but getting other countries to step up more, and in general try to get ahead of this curve?

NANCY LINDBORG: The United States is currently the world’s largest donor to the crisis.

And one important outcome was a renewed commitment to connect with a variety of donors, including those who don’t typically give to the multilateral system. This is going to be an international effort, if we are going to succeed in providing assistance.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s fair to say that some countries — and I would mention the Gulf countries — sometimes, there have been big pledges, but not met?

ANNE RICHARD: Well, the U.N. agency heads gave us a more rosy picture on the funding from the pledging conference that we attended and represented the United States at last January.

They felt that in the subsequent time, not only had the United States met our pledges, but also Kuwait had provided $300 million through U.N. agencies and international organizations, and Europeans had made major contributions. So the trick that we have to address is finding new donors, new countries to come to the table and provide aid.

And that’s where a diplomatic outreach is really needed.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, we have to leave it there, but thank you so much, Nancy Lindborg and Anne Richard. 

ANNE RICHARD: Thank you.

NANCY LINDBORG: Thank you, Margaret.