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WFP chief says not withdrawing staff from Syria

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 27 Mar 2013 08:00 GMT
Author: Emma Batha
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LONDON (AlertNet) - The United Nations decision to move some staff out of Syria amid escalating violence in Damascus will not affect the U.N. World Food Programme’s plans to deliver food to some 2.5 million people, the WFP head said.

The world body said it would relocate about half its 100 foreign staff after mortar bombs fell near their hotel in the Syrian capital on Monday, and had asked 800 local staff to work from home.

But WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin said her agency’s staff were not being pulled out and aid deliveries to Syrians would not be affected.

"WFP is working right now to reach 2 million people by the end of March and ... 2.5 million by the end of April, and we will continue to maintain the staff that are necessary to achieve these goals," she said in an interview with AlertNet. 

Syria’s two-year conflict began as peaceful protests that turned violent when President Bashar al-Assad tried to crush them by force. The United Nations says more than 70,000 people have been killed and nearly 1.2 million have fled the violence. 

Cousin said the WFP had enough food to reach its target of helping 2.5 million people, but the mounting violence was jeopardising the agency’s ability to reach some areas, including rural parts around Aleppo and Damascus and border areas in the north.

She said the WFP had asked the Syrian government for permission to set up a hotline to ensure that aid reaches people. The scheme – trialled in Pakistan after the monsoon flood disaster there – enables people to phone the WFP to tell it if they have not received aid.

 “We are working to set it up in Syria. We unfortunately do not have authority from the government to operate the system ... They have not said no, but they have not given us permission,” she added.

WORSENING CRISIS

Cousin, who has visited the region several times over the last four months, said the situation was deteriorating rapidly, both for refugees who had fled Syria and those displaced inside the country.

“What struck me is that these are people who were just like you and I yesterday. They were working, they owned homes, they had jobs, many of them owned businesses, but now they find themselves living in a tent or in a container because of the evolving violence,” she said.

“Many of those who came out of Syria … came with nothing but the clothes on their back. I’ve actually seen women with their children who walked for days sometimes to arrive at the refugee camp.

“In December we had 560,000 refugees. We are now at 1.1 million, so it is an escalating crisis and that escalation is taking its toll … and unfortunately those who are being truly impacted are the children."

Estimates of the number of internally displaced Syrians range from 2 million to 4 million. Cousin said their plight was often even more desperate because they had been forced to move two or three times.

Many of the refugees have fled to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.

Cousin said Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp was now the fourth largest city in the country.

On a recent visit to Turkey, Cousin saw schools being set up in camps and she praised the government for supporting the refugees.

She said an innovative credit card system was operating in camps in Turkey. Instead of dispensing food or handing out vouchers, WFP is putting 40 Turkish lira ($22) per person per month on these cards, allowing the refugees to shop for themselves.

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