U.S. Humanitarian Response to the Crisis in Syria
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
MR. VENTRELL: Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining the call. As you know, President Obama just recently announced another $155 million of humanitarian assistance from the U.S. Government to aid the Syrian people, which brings us up to $365 million to date of assistance.
And today, to talk a little bit about that assistance in greater detail and where it’s going and how it’s helping the Syrian people, we have with us Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration Anne Richard, and USAID Assistant Administrator for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance Nancy Lindborg.
I’m going to go ahead and turn it over to Nancy first, and then we’ll have some time for questions afterwards. So without further ado, Nancy, I’m going to pass it over to you.
ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR LINDBORG: Great. Thank you, Patrick, and thanks, everybody, for joining us on the call today. Anne and I were joined by Ambassador Robert Ford and took a very important trip, I think, to Jordan, Turkey, and ending in Kuwait, really with three primary goals. One was to underscore the United States’ commitment to the people of Syria during this rising humanitarian crisis. Secondly was to raise awareness as we move into a more urgent phase of need. And three was to urge other countries to step forward and contribute as we went into the Kuwait pledging conference.
And the trip was structured so that we had a chance to talk with Syrian refugees and activists in both Turkey and Kuwait and were able to hear really firsthand what the impact of this crisis is on the people of Syria. And I think, really, the impact on women was particularly underscored for us – women who are pregnant, women who need access to medical care, and women who are in the refugee camps but very concerned about the people who are left behind.
We are very committed to using all channels to ensure assistance is reaching people throughout Syria, and we also made it clear that we know that it’s not enough assistance, which is why, when we got to Kuwait, it was heartening that there was the kind of response that we saw from the Amir of Kuwait and other regional actors. What will be important going forward is that we ensure we have the access that we need to reach people throughout Syria, especially in those hard-to-reach conflict-affected areas, and that’s why we’re using all the channels we can to get there.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Thank you, Nancy, and thank you all for joining us today. We welcome this opportunity to discuss the crisis in Syria. There are some important developments to report to you. I want to give you a few points about what’s happening in the neighboring countries to refugees and then a couple points about what our State Department partners are doing inside Syria.
Outside Syria, we now have 763,000 Syrian refugees. More than a quarter of a million Syrians have fled the country in just the last eight weeks, so we’ve seen a significant uptick in the numbers coming across the borders. And they’re going to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
Now, it’s important to remember when you see the photographs of camps that 67 percent of the refugees are living outside camps, and nearly 80 percent of the refugees are women and children. And of those refugees, one in every five Syrian refugee households is female-headed, and so our programs and the programs that we support have to reach people who need a lot of help in order to survive having left their homes under sometimes very, very violent situations, conditions.
So we met with Syrian refugees in Turkey and Jordan. We discussed the tragedy inside Syria that has prompted them to flee. And most moving for me, we heard their pleas for help for their relatives and friends inside Syria. Really, they were less concerned for themselves in their precarious situations that they were finding themselves, but their thoughts were with those still living in the midst of conflict.
Now, as Nancy said, access inside Syria is a very key issue, also trying to get help in so people don’t feel the need to flee. Forty-nine percent of UN food aid is reaching contested areas or opposition areas. The International Committee of the Red Cross is providing a lot of large-scale assistance food, but also health and water sanitation. And aid workers are reaching all 14 governance in Syria – governorates in Syria, but it’s not enough because they’re frustrated in not getting to all the people they need to reach. So for months, our colleagues in the UN and other aid workers have been dissatisfied that they haven’t been able to reach all communities in need.
Last week, as we were traveling, we were in touch with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. They had arranged sort of a risky venture where a convoy of trucks traveled through Syria, crossed the battle lines, worked it out with the Government of Syria but also with opposition forces and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to reach people in the far north of Syria who had not gotten help up until that point. And so it took a lot of coordination for their route to actually open up and be able to get that very large convoy on its way, but they ended up delivering 2,000 tents and 12,000 blankets to Syrians in need. This was a groundbreaking effort. We hope this will be replicated and, in fact, scaled up so that more aid can get into these areas.
Funding is another key to maintaining operations, and as you know, in Kuwait, we were able to deliver on the President’s announcement of $155 million in humanitarian assistance. The Kuwait pledging conference was a success. We were pleased to see the generosity of donors. We especially welcomed contributions from our friends in the Gulf. So we want to see now these governments deliver on their pledged funds so that the UN can provide that aid that has been promised.
So now, we’re happy to answer any questions you have on our assistance and latest developments.
MR. VENTRELL: Operator, can we go ahead and get the first question?
OPERATOR: Thank you, and ladies and gentlemen, if you have a question, please press *, then 1, and you may remove yourself by pressing the pound key. Once again, if you have a question, please press *, then 1. And we’ll go to Arshad Mohammed with Reuters. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you for doing the call. A couple of questions: Can you give us a breakdown of the 763,000 refugees that are outside the country? Can you let us know how many are each, roughly, in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, and whether the flows, in addition to increasing in the last eight weeks, whether they are changing in terms of the directions in which people are headed, and then – or the countries to which people are headed?
And then, secondly, what explains the UNHCR’s ability to have driven across Syria, across the battle line, to be able to make the deliveries in the north that you just described? Is this a – you said it required an enormous amount of coordination, including with the Syrian Government. Do you think that there is any significant change on – in the attitude of the Syrian Government in terms of permitting these kinds of missions and, hence, perhaps allowing you to scale them up?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: This is Anne. Can you hear me?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Okay. We have the numbers that split out, the 763,000, and we can get them to you through the press office. You don’t have to write these all down. But essentially there’s, like, 240,000 in Jordan; 171,000 in Turkey; 256,000 in Lebanon, only some of whom are registered with UNHCR; 83,000 in Iraq; smaller numbers in Egypt. There’s also a lot of people displaced inside Syria who have fled their homes, so they also – they’re referred to as internally displaced persons. But those are the major numbers of the refugees.
We think that – who knows what really motivates the Government of Syria in its actions today, its bloody actions. But we think that one thing they may have calculated is that they ought to pacify some of the country by making sure that aid got through. And so there has been a change in their approach, but it’s hard to speculate what’s really motivating them. I asked some of our UN colleagues, and that was the only answer I had heard, was that they perhaps wanted to keep some of the people in the countryside loyal to them. But the UN, luckily, was able to take advantage of this opening and really press to get aid out.
ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR LINDBORG: Yeah, if I can just add to that, this is not the first time that the UN has been able to cross lines. As Anne said earlier, the estimates are about 60 percent of overall aid that goes through the Damascus-based agencies has been able to reach communities that are conflict-affected or contested-control.
So it’s been a question of: Are they reaching all of the communities, and is there enough aid altogether? So it’s a combination of ensuring that we get the funding so critical right now, and that’s why the pledging conference was key, and get the access both from the government and from the various militia groups on the ground.
QUESTION: And what are the areas inside Syria that are most critical and where you are having the most difficulty getting access?
ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR LINDBORG: The areas – it’s a shifting set of frontlines. It’s a country that’s at war. So it’s primarily those areas that are seeing the most conflict, part – around Dara’a in the south. It’s hard to reach some of the northern governorates that are outside of government control. So it’s – and it’s conflict areas around Homs and wherever those shifting battle lines are.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Operator, let’s go ahead to the next question.
OPERATOR: And we’ll go to Elise Labott with CNN. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you. Could you talk a little bit more about the numbers that are displaced inside Syria? And I know that you said that the aid is actually getting in, but there are a lot of reports of, actually, in the camps, inside Syria, that there’s a problem with distribution or just the capacity inside the country for some of these people that are running the camps. So could you talk about any information you have about that?
And lastly, if you could just talk about your own perceptions and how – it must have been a – from the reports, it seems like it was a very emotional visit for you in terms of what you saw. So if you could talk to us about – a little bit about how you felt when you saw that, and if you think that the U.S. aid is commensurate with what you saw. Thank you.
ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR LINDBORG: So on the $365 million pledge, $200 million of that is for reaching people inside Syria, and we are focusing on food, on healthcare. What we’re seeing is that what used to be a focus on getting trauma care is now critically needed for just everyday healthcare, as the healthcare system starts to collapse. So it’s vaccinations, it’s help for pregnant women. It’s also, thirdly, looking at helping families survive the winter with blankets, with tents and warm clothes.
What is clear, though, is that there hasn’t been enough. And we talked a lot to the people we met about the fact that our aid is not being branded. We are not putting flags on the aid so that it’s perhaps not as visible as it is in other situations. But that is – our priority is to ensure that it reaches people and that it doesn’t create additional insecurity. However, bottom line, there hasn’t been enough, and we need to collectively, as an international community, press for more access.
We did have good meetings with the SOC’s Assistance Coordination Unit and are helping them to have additional capabilities to identify needs. And in terms of the emotional reaction – and I know Anne will say more about this – but it’s very raw. And you have families who are divided, families who, in a kind of tragic twist on technology, have pictures of their lost loved ones on their cell phones. I met with a woman, Nouf (ph), in Amman, in an Amman tea house, who had fled with her teenage son because she was afraid that, like his brothers, he would be arrested, deported, or killed – sorry, arrested, recruited into the army, or killed.
And so it’s just – it’s very real, it’s very raw, it’s very tragic. And for those of you who have been over to report yourselves or have colleagues doing so, it always takes an emotional toll to see that kind of loss and tragedy.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Yeah, I can second that. We went to the border with – between Jordan and Syria at night and watched whole families come across the border. I have traveled to a lot of refugee camps and visited with refugees in cities all around the world, but I had never seen people become instant refugees, see them moments after crossing that border. And to see kids in the middle of the night up way too late, bundled up against the cold, and the whole family’s possessions shrunk down to a suitcase, and people trying to make sure grandma got across but also the kids got across, even though they were dragging their feet and they were carrying their possessions – I mean, Nancy and I travel a lot and we pride ourselves on taking carry-on only, even for long trips, and the idea that we would live off that for the rest of our lives is so shocking to me.
The other emotional piece of this, though, was seeing sort of happy emotions, of seeing kids playing in Zaatari camp. Zaatari has been reported as a troubled place, and in part it has been in terms of cold weather, flooding, incidences of unrest among young men. But we went to a part where kids who had been traumatized, who had seen war firsthand and had gotten out in these really difficult ways and seeing their incredibly stressed-out parents, that they were having a good time and they were playing and doing the things that kids ought to do.
A third, perhaps, example of the emotional impact of the trip was in Kuwait just sitting in our suite listening to some of our UN colleagues talk very quietly, very calmly about some of the things, the threats against aid workers. One World Food Program leader was talking about a young female colleague who had been carjacked and had managed to get away, and how completely frightening that had been to her, thinking that perhaps her life was about to end.
So you never know. Even in the midst of a dry, technical briefing about aid deliveries, you can end up feeling an emotional punch when you hear a story like that.
QUESTION: Do you have – can you talk a little bit about the numbers of internally displaced? I mean, the UN estimates it’s 2.5 million, but there are some –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Yeah, we’re using their numbers. We’re using their numbers. It’s such a chaotic situation inside Syria, I think you are right to be skeptical of any numbers you hear, but we’re using the UN’s numbers, and those are the best available.
QUESTION: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Pardon me. We’ll go to the line of Josh Rogin with Foreign Policy. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. You briefly mentioned that you had met with the Syrian Opposition Council coordination committee to help them develop additional capacity to identify needs. But I’m wondering if you can explain to us why there’s been no effort to give them any of this aid to distribute. Of course, seven senators who met with them held a press conference last week saying that we needed to do this to bolster their credibility inside Syria. I read in The Washington Post that you don’t believe they have that capability. But isn’t that a Catch-22? Is there any plan to give them any of this money at any point?
ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR LINDBORG: Globally, we provide our humanitarian assistance through the UN system and our NGO partners, and this is specifically to ensure that there is a global humanitarian architecture that can get assistance to people who need it the most on the basis of need. So we’re using the approach that we use globally.
What’s important is that there is coordination with the ACU. And the UN, for example, now has a fulltime liaison person with the ACU in Reyhanli. We have a fulltime liaison person, as does the UK. And so as they gain additional capacity to provide that kind of input into needs assessments, into coordination, we’re absolutely committed to doing that, as we always are in provision of humanitarian assistance.
QUESTION: So there’s no plan to ever – there’s no notion that you would ever actually give aid to be distributed through the Syrian opposition leadership?
ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR LINDBORG: We don’t do – that’s – we don’t provide humanitarian assistance through other governments really anywhere globally. We have a strong commitment to providing needs-based assistance working with the UN and NGO partners.
QUESTION: Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Josh, and we did talk to the Assistance Coordination Unit and we want to have ongoing conversations with them because they have a lot of information. They have a lot of networks. They have a sense of where aid is getting and where it is not. And we want to make sure that not only the U.S. Government but also the UN folks are talking to them and getting that information and making sure that aid gets to where it’s needed. Aid is supposed to be delivered not based on one’s political beliefs or one’s – which side one’s picking in a war or which faction one belongs to, but instead based on need. So their assessment, their networks are very important to us, so we want to work with them. But right now, they’re not built as an organization to deliver aid.
Nancy and I also went up to Capitol Hill yesterday to meet with some of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff to talk to them a little bit about this. We’re always very respectful of the role of Congress; we’re being especially sweet to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff now, because we don’t know which ones of them are going to come to the State Department with our new Secretary and be our bosses. (Laughter.)
MR. VENTRELL: Let’s go ahead to the next question.
OPERATOR: And we’ll go to Neil MacFarquhar with The New York Times. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks a lot for doing this. There’s been some criticism – I realize you just talked about getting aid to the north – but there’s been some criticism from groups like Medecins Sans Frontieres that it’s so rare. And you yourself just talked about the negotiating process. So I was wondering if you could give a breakdown – someone said 70 percent of American aid, because it goes through the UN, actually goes through Syrian Government organizations. Is that correct? And if it’s not correct, what is the right number?
And also, I know there’s an ongoing discussion in terms of getting aid to the north. There’s really sort of an issue of responsibility to protect, and if everybody thinks that Assad is eventually going to fall, then why is the international community being so tentative about sovereignty issues and not getting stuff across that border whether the Syrian Government wants it or not? So could you talk about the sort of U.S. point of view on that please?
ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR LINDBORG: So, Neil, just in terms of your question about what’s getting where, there is – we’ve been able to work to identify that aid has gone to all 14 governorates. As we’ve said earlier, we’re using all channels to ensure that that happens, but it’s not reaching enough people in all 14 governorates, partly because of the operational difficulties, partly because there’s just simply not the capacity, partly because there are blockages by the Syrian Government and also a lot of checkpoints that are manned by different militia groups.
However, we know that of the assistance that we’ve provided so far, that about 55 percent has or will go inside Syria, and that includes a lot of focus on food, for example, which we’ve got good information that that is reaching everywhere, and we’re committed to using all the channels that we can to reach those hard-to-reach northern governorates. Because of some of the operational sensitivities, we can’t go into the details on the record, but we have been working hard to find all the channels that will enable us to do that.
QUESTION: But is there a plan to do something about the north on a more consistent basis? And is that 70 percent figure correct that that’s what goes through – basically through – in Damascus – whether it goes through NGOs or the UN – but it does go through Damascus?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Hi, this is Anne. We should make clear – we talked to a senior UN official about this yesterday – nothing’s going to the Assad government. They are not benefiting from this aid directly. They are getting it out through their partners, through their own staff. There’s over 4,000 UN staff in the country from different agencies. I think there’s 11 different agencies working there. And then they are using local NGOs, they’re using the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, they’re using these local councils to get the aid out. And it is not intended to go to the regime, and it is not going to the regime. We keep checking that because of rumors, but it’s just – it’s not happening.
ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR LINDBORG: So it’s really about looking at all the ways to get aid in, including cross-line, pushing for access in all the ways that we can. And just to underscore what Anne said, the people who are reached and the activities that are happening out of Damascus based – doesn’t mean that it’s not benefiting the whole of the country or broader population. I was very struck by the UNICEF report that with our funding, with USG funding, they’re able to provide chlorine tabs for five water municipals – urban water systems that will ensure that 10 million people are getting clean water for the next three months. So it’s not always such a clean divide about what’s – much of the aid that’s going in is benefiting a broad array of folks throughout Syria.
MR. VENTRELL: Operator, we’ve got time for just about one or two more questions.
OPERATOR: Okay. And we’ll go to Karen DeYoung with The Washington Post. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you. On this question, I don’t think anyone’s ever said that the aid was going directly to the Syrian Government, but that 70-80 percent was going to agencies that are supervised by the Syrian Government as the recognized government of the various international agencies that are working there. So maybe you can clarify that a little bit.
We’ve all heard the complaints from people inside that they’re not getting enough, and specifically that they’re getting nothing from the United States. I know you said that you’re more interested in making sure stuff gets around than that it has an American flag on it, but at the same time, I think there’s a policy interest in having some recognition of the assistance that the United States has given. So how do you coordinate this between the political side and the aid side in order to meet some of those policy goals? Or do you not coordinate it at all?
ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR LINDBORG: Well, when we were in Turkey, I was able to announce a program that’s illustrative of the kind of actions that we’re taking, and that is delivery of flour to 50 bakeries in the Aleppo governorate that will feed 210,000 people for the next five months with daily bread. And what we’re looking for is the ways in which we can increase our communications directly with the people of Syria so that they understand what we’re doing and all the ways in which we’re standing with them during this crisis as we look at all the ways that we can increase the assistance using all the channels to get to them.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Hi, it’s Anne. I want to follow up on the issue of the charge that aid is going to the Syrian Government. Maybe none of you have put that forward, but we have seen that a lot on Facebook and social media among opposition supporters. And it was directly told to us by refugees in Turkey in the camp – Islahiye Camp – that we visited. We met with some camp leaders, and they told us that they knew for a fact $519 million was going to the Syrian Government from the UN. And what that was was misinformation; $519 million is the size of the Syrian Humanitarian Response Plan that UN put out for funding needs inside Syria, and it’s not at all – so we told them. We refuted that, that it was not going to the Syrian Government, it was being used to deliver aid to civilians inside Syria.
Now, more to your point, Karen DeYoung, is that at what point does the Syrian Government stop and local grassroots organizations start, and who’s controlling what? And so in most countries, the local national society of the Red Cross, or the Red Crescent, for example, is usually headed by somebody who is close to the government. In this case, it’s Dr. Attar. We think he’s been very evenhanded in how he’s been dealing with this issue. But he’s clearly a successful Syrian businessman, so he couldn’t have gotten to where he was if he didn’t know the folks in government. What we’ve seen is that across the country, we’ve gotten very different reports about the loyalties of Syrian Arab Red Crescent folks, including some who are very much in support of the opposition, some who are carrying out the neutrality of the Red Cross movement.
That convoy that made it up to Azzaz in northern Syria, a lot of that was – the goods that made it were unloaded by the local Red Crescent that had not been in touch with the Damascus headquarters for 20 months. Similarly, we know that health supplies are getting into clinics that are overseen by the Ministry of Health, but the supplies are not benefiting the ministry; they’re benefiting the patients in those clinics.
So we keep going back and double-checking and asking and working with our partners to make sure that nothing is being diverted, nothing is going to benefit the regime. And we’re satisfied today that all the aid is going to benefit the civilians in Syria.
MR. VENTRELL: Operator, we’ve got --
ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR LINDBORG: And Karen, just to – Robert – as I mentioned at the top, Robert Ford traveled with us in part so that we had a shared understanding of what were the needs, what are the challenges related to humanitarian assistance. And the UN estimates that it can reach about 1.5 million people. The extra funding that came in through Kuwait will enable it to do more, enable it to push cross-line. And we need to collectively press through diplomatic channels as well for greater access as we continue to use all the channels we can to reach people in need. It’s an all – it’s using all the options available to us.
QUESTION: Can I just follow up for a minute? I know you said you made this announcement in Turkey, but are you doing anything else on a sort of almost informational public relations level to communicate with people inside Turkey about what the United States is doing?
ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR LINDBORG: So a large goal of our trip that we did jointly was to push hard on both regional Arab language and inside Syria media so that people understood that the United States is standing with the Syrians at their time in need, that we have provided substantial assistance and we know it’s not enough, so we are increasing our assistance as announced by President Obama, and we are urging other countries to step forward as well because the needs are so great that this cannot be shouldered by any one country, especially as we’re looking at the impact in the neighboring countries. So, a lot of social media and a lot of ways to push that message out, absolutely.
MR. VENTRELL: Operator, let’s go ahead for one final question, please.
OPERATOR: And we’ll go to Jo Biddle with AFP. Please go ahead.
QUESTION: Good morning. Thank you very much for organizing this call. I’m wondering if you could address – I had a couple questions. First off, you mentioned the figure that 67 percent of people are outside of camps. Could you tell us where they are and what their situation is like? Are they in worse or better straits than the people who are finding their way into the camps?
And secondly, I wondered if you could talk a little bit more about the convoy. How many trucks was it, how long did it take it to negotiate to the north, and was it also taking food, as well as the blankets and tents you mentioned? And again, what was the situation that was met by those – that the aid workers found when they managed to get through to the north and reach those people in their situation up there? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: Okay. I will try to remember all the pieces of this. First off, the situation that they found there was not great because they were living in flimsy tents. I mean, there’s YouTube video of them arriving that we ought to be able to get you the link for.
PARTICIPANT: It’s on –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: It’s on our Facebook? Excellent. So you can see that people are crowded together, and you can contrast it to what the Turkish camps look like, which are some of the finest refugee camps on Earth. And so they were very troubled that these folks had not gotten aid in so long.
QUESTION: I was asking how long it took for you to negotiate the way through for the convoy and how many trucks it was comprised of.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY RICHARD: They were delayed by a couple of days, I don’t know if it was two or three, trying to get it through with these negotiations. They had a plan to arrive right before the Kuwait conference, and they ended up – it dragged into the Kuwait conference. And so we were all listening with bated breath to reports from the High Commissioner, Antonio Guterres.
Also, in terms of refugees living in communities, Turkey has 15 camps and another six being built. In Jordan, most refugees do not live in the one camp that exists right now, and the second being built. And in Lebanon, all of the refugees are living in cities, in villages. They’ve been taken into people’s homes. They’re living with friends, they’re living with relatives, they’re living with strangers, they’re living in school buildings that have been taken over, in municipal buildings.
And so are they better off or worse off than in a camp? If someone in the family has gotten employment, if they are with family who can provide some extra space, some food for them, they could be potentially better off if the kids are going to school and getting Arabic lessons. They could be better off. But in some places I know, people are really crowded together in very, very substandard housing and quite desperate.
And so our programs try to reach these refugees too. We don’t just focus on the people in the camps. We try to get aid, rent assistance. We were talking – we met with some refugees who were getting food vouchers that they could use when they went shopping. So we are very much focused on making sure that if people are out of camps, that they have what they need to survive.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. VENTRELL: Okay. Thank you all for joining today’s call. This is the end of today’s call and we appreciate you for – appreciate everybody dialing in. Thanks.