By Alex Whiting
LONDON (AlertNet) – About 4 million people may be displaced within Syria, double previous estimates, the head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) said on a visit to London.
Nearly half of them are not getting the aid they need, Abdul Rahman Attar, president of the SARC, told AlertNet.
Fighting between rebel groups and government forces has forced millions to flee their homes since an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began two years ago. Many have fled across the border, but the majority have sought shelter within Syria.
Of those, many have been taken in by Syrian families, but large numbers have been forced to shelter in damaged buildings or schools and stadiums.
“What they need most at the moment is shelter, food, mattresses, blankets, cooking equipment and, during the winter, heaters and candles,” Attar said.
He added that the SARC urgently needs more food to distribute – at the moment only 2 million people, or half of those in need, are receiving food parcels.
The SARC is the main distributing agency for the World Food Programme and other U.N. agencies. WFP is planning to increase the number of people receiving food aid to 2.5 million by April.
Medical supplies and medicines are also urgently needed, he added. More than 30 government hospitals have been destroyed - a tenth of the total - and health services have deteriorated, Attar said.
The number of internally displaced can rise or fall by half a million within days as people flee fresh fighting or seek safety across the border, Attar added.
“The fighting is escalating in the country. The only quiet areas are the (western port cities of) Tartus and Latakia. And it’s starting to be a division between people. It’s becoming ethnic now, you can feel it in some areas.”
SAFE PASSAGE NEEDED
One of the major challenges the SARC faces is reaching the vulnerable in the country’s north where rebels have their bases.
Negotiations for a temporary ceasefire to give aid convoys safe passage have to be carried out by the International Committee of the Red Cross or the United Nations – the SARC does not have the mandate to talk directly with the rebel groups.
“These negotiations are happening but it is not enough. We need to have more frequent convoys to go to rebel areas because people there are badly in need,” Attar said.
The SARC was able to get its first aid convoy into the region just over a month ago.
Attar said all the rebel groups wanted to control the aid. “If you negotiate with one rebel group, the other will refuse to allow the aid in, and each one will try to control it to show people they are the ones bringing in the aid.
“We cannot do that. We give aid to everybody in need. We don’t ask people whether they are rebels or not, whether they have guns or not.”
International aid distributed by the SARC comes from Jordan by road, or by sea to the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia, then by road to Homs, Aleppo and Damascus.
Turkish, Saudi and Qatari organisations and others are also crossing the Turkish border “illegally” and supplying aid in rebel areas. But sometimes this aid only goes to rebel fighters and their families. “It doesn’t go to all people in need,” Attar said.
The SARC has up to 9,000 trained volunteers, most of them between 18 and 28 years old, all working without pay.
Several have been killed since the uprising began two years ago, and 10 are currently in jail.
“The volunteers are heroes, and they deserve the respect of everybody,” Attar said.