Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade

Humanitarian Impact of Conflict in Syria: Discussion.

2:30 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I ask members, witnesses and people in the Visitors Gallery to ensure their mobile telephones are turned off for the duration of the meeting as they cause interference with the broadcast of proceedings.

I welcome the representatives of Concern - Mr. Ros O'Sullivan, emergency directorate, and Mr. Peter Doyle, desk officer for Syria and Lebanon; GOAL - Mr. Jonathan Edgar, chief operations officer, and our former colleague, Mr. Barry Andrews, chief executive officer; and Médecins Sans Frontières - Ms Jane-Ann McKenna, director, and Ms Deirdre Mangaoang, communications manager. We have read reports in the newspapers and seen plenty of television reports on the terrible ongoing tragedy in Syria and today we will hear from the representatives of those who have first hand experience there. I will ask a representative of each organisation to make a presentation and after the third presentation there will be a questions and answers session in the usual format.

I invite Ms Jane-Ann McKenna, director of Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF, in Ireland, to make her presentation.

Ms Jane-Ann McKenna:

I thank the committee for inviting me to today's meeting to discuss the humanitarian impact of the conflict in Syria and MSF's response. I have just returned from Jordan and northern Iraq where I conducted an assessment for MSF of the overall humanitarian response in the region for Syrian refugees. Thousands continue to cross the border almost daily and all actors are trying to scale up their activities to try to meet the increasing needs. Today, I will focus mainly on MSF's response inside Syria, but I will be happy to address any questions regarding the response to the Syrian refugees.

Across Syria there are enclaves surrounded by intense fighting where virtually no aid is reaching the people trapped inside. Our teams on the ground have seen at first hand the horrors of living under siege, where, for example, water is cut off and snipers fire at anyone who tries to access the only well with water left in the area and where food is scare and the constant shelling is intense. People are living in extreme fear and in abominable conditions. The wounded and sick face near insurmountable obstacles when trying to access health care due to the relentless bombings and the targeting and destruction of Syria's health system.

The medical system, like the rest of Syrian society, has been under siege during the conflict and is no longer capable of responding to the acute and chronic medical needs of the Syrian people. Of the 91 public hospitals across the country, 60% have been damaged or completely destroyed. Doctors have fled the country in huge numbers. Among those who remain are small numbers of medical specialists, doctors-in-training and surgeons with little or no experience in operating on war-related injuries. Dentists are performing minor surgeries, pharmacists are treating patients and young people are volunteering to work as nurses. MSF is providing emergency surgical care to victims of violence and trauma in six hospital across three governments in northern Syria.

I will refer to an extract written by one of our Irish doctors who has just returned from working for two months in our hospital in Idlib, which reflects the reality of the situation. He wrote:

And then August hit and our project quickly turned to trauma management. Fighting intensified, villages were bombed and casualties, fighters and civilians, flooded in. Within two weeks we launched nine mass casualty incidents. This is when the influx of the wounded exceeds the capacity of our hospital. They all came together and with injuries so severe that many needed life-saving treatment at the exact same time. The inpatient wards swelled beyond capacity, yet we did not have the staff to manage this. Many of the team just kept working later and later each day, pushing past their limits. There was no other choice. Even between these events we were much busier than before with trauma victims. More skulls fractured open, more hands and feet blown off, more injuries bleeding inside chests and abdomens needing immediate intervention, more faces smashed in. Some cases were brought in already dead. Some were immediately palliative as our staff sat with the parents of children waiting for them to die peacefully. Others were the friends and family of our staff. Explaining to our translator that there is nothing we could do to save his uncle who was hit by a rocket, he understood: "Many of our family have already been killed. We know this is what happens." At a later bombing of a local village our new doctor lost three family members. He quickly moved his family the following day and then turned up for work again and I couldn't say to him, "take some days off, you need it". The line between staff and victim had long since been lost.

Today, Syrians are dying not only from bullets, bombs and missiles, but also from easily treatable and preventable illnesses. These are the silent casualties – people with chronic conditions like cancer and diabetes who can no longer get treatment following the collapse of the health system. They cannot be referred outside the country and so they are dying slowly. We are seeing evidence of hepatitis A generally, along with measles in children who have not been vaccinated in more than two years.

Although MSF initially focused on providing emergency and trauma care, we have now extended to include primary health care consultations, maternal care, polio and measles vaccination campaigns, mental health programmes, and donations of medications to treat communicable diseases such as typhoid and chronic illnesses. We are working with 450 team members on the ground in order to deliver these essential medical services. In areas where we cannot send our own teams because of insecurity or lack of access, in the past two years we have expanded our programme of supporting Syrian medical networks, hospitals and medical posts by providing drugs, medical equipment, and technical advice. We are now supporting 84 health structures. The majority of the clinics MSF supports are in opposition-controlled areas, but some are in government-controlled areas, or areas of conflict under mixed control. In many areas, people are too scared to cross front lines to access health care, and health care workers have been killed, arrested, tortured or threatened. Medical structures are relentlessly bombed and military bases have been established close to makeshift hospitals, putting these medical facilities at risk of being caught in the middle of fighting or being directly hit in an attack. The situation is so extreme that some doctors have told us they feel it is more dangerous for them to be caught carrying medical supplies than if they were caught carrying weapons.

Despite the challenges of medical supply throughout Syria, there is some level of capacity being sustained in government-controlled areas, and an underground movement of medical facilities operates in opposition areas. These structures are set up in incredible conditions – from kitchen tables to underground basements. However, this medical capacity is not provided outside the divides of the conflict and therefore both sides view health providers as targets. Field hospital are almost systematically bombed, health workers in government hospitals are threatened not to go to work and medical staff provide treatment to the wounded in secret. One of the latest examples of this was in early September when a field hospital in al Bab, northern Syria, was bombed by the Syrian air force, killing nine patients and two medical staff.

The challenges in responding to the humanitarian fallout of this brutal conflict are immense. There is an insufficient deployment of aid in Syria. For those providing aid across borders - such as Médecins Sans Frontières – it is impossible to have extensive geographic coverage. Aid is confined to a very small area close to the Turkish border and it is possible to address only a fraction of the needs. Since the beginning of the year, fewer than 20 UN and ICRC convoys have managed to cross the front lines. Only a large-scale cross-border supply operation can meet the needs that arise from the fighting, the widespread destruction, population displacement and collapse of public services. What we are seeing today is that even this very limited deployment of aid is being squeezed and is under constant threat. We need to see more humanitarian actors accepted to work in Syria by the Syrian government, a complete lifting of restrictions on where medical aid can be deployed and respect for the safety of aid actors to be shown by both the armed opposition and the Syrian army. To achieve this we need to see a diplomatic mobilisation similar to that we saw around the issue of chemical weapons

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I thank Ms McKenna. We are taking a slightly different order. I call Mr. Ros O'Sullivan, medical response co-ordinator with Concern.

Mr. Ros O'Sullivan:

On behalf of Concern, I thank the committee for its invitation to make a presentation on the humanitarian impact of the Syrian crisis and for taking the time to focus on this critical issue. We in Concern recognise that almost all of recent discussion on Syria has been about chemical weapons use and what to do about it or about the threat of international military intervention. This distracts from the humanitarian situation so we welcome the opportunity to highlight the plight of the Syrian people and bring greater focus to humanitarian needs inside Syria and in neighbouring countries.

This is a highly charged, highly complex, highly politicised and hugely complicated context. For humanitarian agencies working on the ground in the country, such as ourselves, it is a matter of having to feel our way through this in a very slow, considered and measured way in order to overcome the issues relating to sustained access, build acceptance of our presence and programmes and work with very high levels of insecurity. Concern is working in both Syria and Lebanon in response to the crisis, providing shelter and WASH - water and sanitation assistance - to refugees in northern Lebanon. The primary focus of our current work inside Syria is to provide a broad WASH programme to reach people at risk of disease.

I recently returned from a month in the region and have seen at first hand the impact this conflict is having on the Syrian population. In Lebanon, the number of refugees is heading for the 1 million mark, in a country that has a similar population to Ireland but with only a fraction of the size. Can members imagine what it would be like for a million people to come here out of desperation and need? This is leading to increasing tensions between Syrian refugees and their Lebanese hosting communities because of the pressure the increased population is placing on available housing options. The lack of suitable shelter options has reached crisis point in Lebanon, with more new arrivals and increasing incidents of evictions of those already in place. Increased incidents of cross-border shelling into north Lebanon is putting both Lebanese and refugee families at increased risk. While obviously indiscriminate in whom it affects, the shelling appears to be targeting areas of high displacement. This is happening too often to be considered accidental or stray and is impeding access to affected populations.

On 13 September, six bombs fell around the small village of Fraidis in northern Lebanon, which is barely a mile from the Syrian border. Its former school, the Fraidis collective centre, is now home to ten Syrian families. After the attack, the ten families living in Fraidis were asked to leave. Those living in the old school building are being relocated to another collective centre away from the border. One of them, Josianne, spoke of what had happened:

We do not feel safe any more. We hate it when night comes because of the shells. Because of the shelling the host communities say the refugees are a target and they would like them to leave. We are also afraid of something else. The people in the village came by a couple of times to tell us to leave. They don't want Syrian people in their village and they are saying it is because of our stay that shells are being thrown at them.
Inside Syria, the indiscriminate nature of the conflict and the climate of fear that exists after nearly three years of fighting - fear of aerial bombardment, fear of car bombings, fear of being lifted from one's home at night by one group or another - has led to a mass exodus and the almost total economic ruin of the country. This has resulted in more than 10% of the population fleeing the country and becoming refugees in neighbouring countries. The current estimate is such refugees is 2.1 million refugees. More than double that number, or 4.5 million internally displaced persons, IDPs, are taking to the road and becoming internally displaced inside Syria.

Another case study is that of Ibrahim and Nour, a brother and sister who have recently arrived at a refugee camp in Turkey. Ibrahim spoke of their experience, saying:

We don't know if we'll be alive from one day to the next or whether I will be kidnapped or arrested. The most important thing for me is to feel safe. This fear is not just my fear but also a fear for everyone living in Syria. No one knows if there will be shelling or bombing - it is complicated. There is no sense of security no matter where you go. My sister and I have moved three times in the last year and finally we just had to leave Syria.
Syrians are finding it increasingly difficult to feed and house their families in safety. Another case study is of Fatima, a mother, and her cousin Ahmed. Fatima reported:
Life is very difficult here. My husband had a good job but now sells cigarettes on the road side. I work at a border kitchen. They give me breakfast, lunch and dinner for my family. Another woman minds my children and baby while I work. We also get one and a half loaves of bread a day from a local NGO. We are grateful for this but this is not enough. If we don't get the supplement food from the kitchen I work in we couldn't survive.
Much of the infrastructure is either destroyed or damaged and is not functioning, not even at minimum level.

I refer to industry, electricity, water, health care and education. Much of that infrastructure is concentrated in cities and towns, that is, the areas which have borne the brunt of sustained bombardment for more than two years. The situation is deteriorating daily and winter is coming, for the third time since the conflict began, bringing with it additional hardship as people have fewer means for coping at their disposal. In many parts of the country workers are not getting paid and the fabric of society is breaking down. Yet many of these people are still showing up for work and trying to carry on with fewer and fewer resources and an infrastructure that is barely functioning.

What is normal inside Syria today is barely tolerable for its people. We have seen a doubling of the number of refugees since January this year, with every reason to believe their numbers will double again if the situation remains unresolved. For the huge displaced population inside Syria, conditions are appalling. The UN has described the situation there as the greatest crisis of the last 30 years, a crisis from which the country will take years, if not decades, to recover. As it draws in neighbouring countries, the conflict poses a very real danger of escalating beyond Syria's borders into a much broader regional conflict.

There are clear actions that must be taken to address the situation. First and foremost, we must have more intensive efforts to find a durable political and diplomatic end to the conflict. In that regard, we welcome the efforts of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, and his engagement with the UN on this issue. We hope that all possible pressure will be brought to bear to ensure the Geneva II talks go ahead as scheduled at the end of November. Those talks must be inclusive, bringing together all parties and all influences. Having just some of the multitude of movements and groups represented will not in itself bring about an end to hostilities. Neighbouring countries affected by the crisis must also be represented and involved, including Israel and Iran. The $4.5 billion appeal for Syria is only 50% funded to date and more resources must be made available to provide timely and appropriate humanitarian assistance both inside Syria and in neighbouring countries. I have highlighted some of the issues facing refugees in Lebanon. There is an additional need to lobby the Lebanese Government to rethink its objections to large-scale formal camps given that the other options are fully saturated and exhausted.

2:40 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Thank you, Mr. O'Sullivan. I now call Mr. Barry Andrews of GOAL.

Mr. Barry Andrews:

Thank you, Vice Chairman. I thank the committee for inviting us to attend this meeting and for its ongoing interest in this area, particularly its focus on the humanitarian and operational aspects. When I appeared before the committee last April, I indicated my expectation that the casualty list in Syria would exceed 100,000 by the end of the year. In fact, that number was reached some weeks ago, which underlines the urgency of the problems confronting the people of that country.

I made a presentation at the Daniel O'Connell summer school last month, where I made the point that when O'Connell died in 1847, he died with a broken heart because he could not persuade the British people that the Irish Famine was a humanitarian rather than a political issue. The prevailing view in the British political classes at the time was that the Irish were a violent, reckless and undeserving people. O'Connell was unable to persuade them that the humanitarian consideration should be more important than the political prejudices that existed. Returning to the present day, leaders of non-governmental organisations and political leaders and influencers in this country - which has an outstanding reputation in the area of humanitarian aid - have a serious duty to persuade people of the extent of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria, which was perfectly illustrated by my colleagues from Médecins Sans Frontières Ireland and Concern.

My colleague, Mr. Jonathan Edgar, has just returned from Syria where he undertook a full assessment of our operations. He will outline some of his findings to the committee.

Mr. Jonathan Edgar:

As Mr. Andrews indicated, I was inside northern Syria last week visiting GOAL's humanitarian programmes across the Idlib and Hama provinces. GOAL has been working inside Syria since November 2012 and is currently delivering humanitarian assistance to more than 350,000 individuals every month. My latest trip was a follow-up to an earlier visit in July. It was evident to me that the humanitarian situation has deteriorated considerably in the meantime. In fact, without an immediate and sustainable solution to the conflict, the humanitarian crisis will become unmanageable for the larger international NGOs operating inside Syria.

I take this opportunity to urge Irish parliamentarians and other elected representatives to keep the humanitarian crisis in Syria high on the political agenda. Political will and political pressure, not only from Ireland, but from across Europe and the rest of the world, is essential if we are to protect the human rights of the most vulnerable people affected by this conflict. The United Nations has estimated that 100,000 people have been killed to date, 6.8 million are in need of aid, 4.25 million to 4.5 million are internally displaced inside Syria, and 2.1 million are seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. Perhaps the most shocking statistic is that half of the 6.8 million people in need of aid are children.

We can talk all day about figures but it is only when one visits Syria and sees the devastation and suffering at first hand that the enormity of the humanitarian catastrophe becomes really apparent. It is one of the worst humanitarian crises I have witnessed, and I have seen many. I welcome the statement by the United States Secretary of State, Mr. John Kerry, that his country and Russia are pushing the United Nations to hold a Syria peace conference in the second week of November. It is important, however, to emphasise the urgency of the situation. There is a need for a clear, sustainable solution right now. Not only will innocent people continue to suffer if the impasse continues, but the realisation of any peaceful solution in the future will become more difficult as extremist groups look to profit from the inertia of the international community and the chaos inside Syria. The country is unravelling as a result of the current vacuum.

Thanks to the support of Irish Aid and other international donors, including the British and United States governments and the European Union, GOAL is providing food rations to 350,000 people on a monthly basis. These rations include basic nutritional components such as rice, beans, pasta and oil. In addition, GOAL is providing soya bread for 100,000 people per month and supporting the re-establishment of the bakeries through large-scale flour distributions. To ensure that 84,000 displaced people are prepared for the harsh winter ahead, GOAL, with funding from the Government, is distributing vouchers that can be redeemed from a supplier for a range of items, including heating fuel, housing repair materials, blankets, clothing and cooking utensils - the types of materials we take for granted on a day-to-day basis. When it reviewed GOAL's voucher programme recently, the United States Office of the Inspector General pronounced it one of the most innovative schemes it had seen and recommended that it be replicated as widely as possible.

While ensuring humanitarian needs are met in GOAL's current areas of operation, we will continue to expand our geographical focus to reach those populations most at risk. I agree with my colleague from Médecins Sans Frontières Ireland that the delivery of aid in a 12 km band just south of the Turkish border will not meet the needs of the most vulnerable and needy. When security permits, we will have to work through local partners to access the less secure areas not currently receiving aid, including southern Idlib and Hama town, where the fighting is at its heaviest. There is a need for the humanitarian community and international agencies to expand their humanitarian activities to include provision of safe water, supporting the rural agricultural sector, providing home repair and transitional shelter for families, and responding to the primary health care needs of the most vulnerable people.

The challenges facing GOAL's operations in Syria in the coming months can only be mitigated significantly by the creation of a protected humanitarian corridor that allows humanitarian agencies access to the areas most in need. This humanitarian corridor would protect aid distributions from the interference of both government and rebel forces. That will only come about through dialogue at a political level. The issue on the ground is humanitarian. The humanitarian response will not solve the political situation but without a protected humanitarian corridor which allows aid agencies to reach those most in need, the situation will deteriorate further.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Thank you, Mr. Edgar. I will now take questions from members, beginning with Deputy Brendan Smith.

2:50 pm

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the guests and, through them as representatives of their organisations, I compliment the staff and colleagues working in difficult circumstances. The witnesses' contributions have outlined the serious and frightening humanitarian disaster in Syria and the adjoining regions. Mr. Ros O'Sullivan mentioned that we want to get away from the emphasis on chemical weapons and the political end of it and towards the humanitarian issue. Mr. Barry Andrews highlighted the emphasis the Oireachtas and this committee put on the humanitarian needs of the region. This is a committee in a small Parliament but, through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the European Union Council of Ministers, the Tánaiste assures us he raises the humanitarian aspect of the particular difficulties on an ongoing basis. I fully accept that. I am glad the Government has allocated €13.8 million to date in humanitarian assistance. It is needed.

The figures supplied to us in a briefing show the vast majority of the funding has gone through the United Nations structures. A much smaller quantum has gone to organisations like those represented by the witnesses. I presume the United Nations organisations are hampered in getting much-needed humanitarian aid to the areas held by rebels. I presume the UN must respect the mandate of the Assad regime. That concerns me greatly. From my limited knowledge, there are substantial areas under rebel control and a huge number of people are losing their lives and are in absolute distress. Perhaps one of the witnesses can address the issue.

At this committee and during Oral Questions in the Dáil, I have welcomed the contribution of the Irish Government on behalf of the Irish taxpayer. Do we need a refocus on the disbursement of funds and whether they are getting to the people most in need? We have all raised the issue at this committee.

The UN Security Council has been ineffective in trying to address this very serious difficulty. Mr. Barry Andrews mentioned that this is the humanitarian issue of our generation. Sadly, the situation has deteriorated since he last spoke to us, a few months ago, in respect of the number of people losing their lives and those displaced internally and to neighbouring areas. The UN Security Council has five permanent members and my understanding is that the five permanent members have a veto. It is a 16 member council with a rotating membership. It was established after the Second World War and the architecture of the United Nations has not changed in the meantime. The needs of so many people and regions have not been addressed. In the countries that hold permanent membership, is there any sense that the ineffective working of the UN Security Council must be addressed?

We know that the European Union has been the best contributor and donor to the humanitarian aid programme. Other countries have made major pledges that have not been honoured. Through sister organisations, can the witnesses find a forum or forums to highlight the absolute need for the countries, many of whom are large powers, to honour their pledges to people in distressing situations? I compliment the witnesses and their organisations on working in extremely difficult areas.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State will attend next week's meeting and will concentrate to a considerable extent on chemical weapons.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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Like other speakers, I welcome the fact that the Minister of State, Deputy Joe Costello, has come up with the €3 million in support. The reference to 6.8 million people, half of whom are children, needing aid is staggering. Our contribution is a drop in the ocean. Is it helpful to talk about the fact that half of the aid budget promised was provided and that countries have not stepped up to the mark? Is it helpful to name and shame these countries? Does it matter if they have given a commitment and are not delivering on it? Recently, a BBC programme showed two doctors going to Syria. The countryside was desolation and bleak like a lunar landscape. I presume the witnesses have experienced it. The only aspect that does not come across on the television screen is the smell, the heat and the physical conditions in which people live. The programme showed the refugee camps and the kids who had been bombed with phosphorus. No proper medication is available. The medical supplies are not suitable for children. How can that be addressed? Anyone affected by seeing the programme could not walk away from the problem.

Mr. Ros O'Sullivan referred to the 1 million extra refugees in Lebanon. People in Ireland complain about an influx of refugees in Ireland when, last year, 700 people came to this country. It puts the figure in context. In Syria, there was a 10% increase in the population from the Iraq war. A certain amount of the population moved from Palestine. Generations have been moved because of war and they are now being moved again.

How do the witnesses deal with camps? Sometimes, this arises out of a sectarian conflict. How was this dealt with in camps? Are they divided along sectarian lines or are people lumped together? People need help and support in this respect. How safe is it? Witnesses referred to the corridor. How can we make the corridor safe? Are we talking about troops going in to make the humanitarian corridor safe? Are the witnesses hoping the different groups, including the government and opposition sides, will come to agreement in order that supplies and humanitarian aid can be delivered? How likely is that to happen? Do we need troops on the ground? If that happens, will the situation escalate?

How is safe water secured? With the growth of the refugee camps, problems arise with typhoid and cholera and children not receiving vaccinations. Camps are breeding grounds for disease as they get bigger. The BBC programme referred to a toilet drain going into the only water in the camp.

I thank the witnesses for the work they are doing. They are the heroes, in my eyes and in the eyes of many people, for risking life and limb to go into those conditions. They are saving lives and they are giving hope. We all hope some diplomatic initiative can be taken. The fact that there has been movement on chemical weapons may open up real dialogue. That is the only way forward. I thank the witnesses for attending this meeting.

3:00 pm

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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I thank the delegates for their attendance. This is not the first time the committee has heard a presentation about the situation in Syria which seems to be getting more grim each time. There is very little hope being expressed by the many people we have met. A population which is more than the population of Ireland has been displaced, with half of the population seeking refuge outside the country. The plight of the children affects me most. Some of them will not know any other life except growing up in a conflict situation. People are dying from preventable illnesses.

Ireland's provision of aid funding is just a small drop in the ocean. Is it being used where it is most needed? Have the delegates any suggestions as to where it could be better deployed?

I have a question about Lebanon for Mr. Ros O'Sullivan. Is he suggesting that big camps are the best option? I acknowledge the pressure being exerted on Lebanon. What is the most humane solution for those refugees moving into Lebanon?

I have a question for GOAL. Is GOAL working in parts of Syria where people are trying to lead a so-called normal life? Can there be a humanitarian solution without a political one? Do they go hand in hand? Is the possibility of an interim measure such as a humanitarian corridor or a ceasefire being raised with any of the players in Syria to facilitate the movement of aid into the country? I hope pressure can be applied to those countries which have pledged money and have not come up with it.

The delegates and their work are amazing. I feel totally helpless and inadequate. This is not the first time that chemical weapons have been used but it could provide a way forward towards a study of the broader picture. The people are being destroyed by more means than chemical weapons alone.

Photo of Eric ByrneEric Byrne (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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It is difficult to get a handle on this rather complex situation. I thank the delegates for their contributions and for their sterling work in the region. I support the call for the establishment of humanitarian corridors. Unfortunately, it is probably very easy to say it and to ask that it be done. I refer to the report on Syria by Mary Fitzgerald in The Irish Times. She explained that there are at least 12 armed factions in control of various parts of Syria. She wrote about the composition of these factions and the complexities of having the Kurds on the Turkish border and the relationship between Turkey, the Kurds and Lebanon and Hezbollah support for Assad. It is an extremely disturbing country. The key players are Russia and America. The European Union does not seem to be effective but it is a significant contributor to the aid programmes, for which it is to be congratulated. Is the incredible friction that exists between the fighters and the establishment Islamists, with people joining up in different camps, a contributory factor in the continuing escalation of the problem? The poor unfortunate average civilians are suffering the most.

I refer to the very detailed coloured map which accompanies Ms Fitzgerald's article. If the Kurds control a large section of the area bordering Turkey, presumably aid could be brought in by that route, unless the Turks were being obstreperous but I do not think they are. In fact, I congratulate the Turkish Government on its excellent, kind and humane response to so many refugees. Ms Jane-Ann McKenna said that it was easier to organise humanitarian aid within government controlled areas. It would seem that a humanitarian corridor might have to pass through areas controlled by many different factions. I hope the Irish troops in Lebanon are safe. Theirs is a remarkable task, and I note that some countries pulled their troops out of the region. I wish our troops every success in keeping the peace in the area between Syria and Israel. It may be necessary to wait for the outcome from Geneva.

Ireland is a small nation but is providing hard cash for aid programmes. Some organisations make the argument that aid from Ireland should go to them in direct funding. Most of our aid goes to the United Nations. The delegates represent NGOs operating in various parts. I ask in what way the organisations complement the work of the United Nations which receives the funding. I opened my e-mails today to see that my spam box contained a request to help Syrian children by donating €45. This e-mail looks very genuine and it comes from UNICEF, apparently. However, the spam notice warned that this was a dangerous piece of Spam in so far as it was aimed at extracting money under false pretences. Is it possible that people are trying to exploit our humanitarian goodwill by mimicking a website? I would love to be told it is not spam but my e-mail box indicates it is so.

I understand that about 50% of the Palestinians in the region are already second generation refugees. Who is handling that element of the crisis? Why would 50% of the Palestinians be dispersed while the other 50% are staying put?

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I join in welcoming our guests. I compliment them on the amazing work of their various organisations. It is difficult to visualise the magnitude of what they face every day. The 6.8 million refugees number more than the population of the entire island of Ireland. It is almost impossible to visualise if every one of us needed daily aid. This statistic is coupled with the figure of 100,000 killed. Half of the 6.8 million refugees are children. This illustrates the seriousness of the situation. Our Government is doing its best to help the aid efforts, but it is a drop in the ocean. Like Deputy Crowe, I said that those who are failing to meet their obligations and much larger countries which are not contributing should be named and shamed. We need to increase the pressure on some of those wealthier countries. I am concerned that despite the size of this tragedy it is not getting the international attention a crisis of this magnitude deserves.

There is coverage on television but people have become immune to it, leaving a challenge for organisations like those before us today to keep the matter highlighted.

I cannot rationalise that while there are discussions about loss of life from attacks using chemical weapons, there does not seem to be a diplomatic initiative to enable aid getting to injured people. How is there no urgency in this regard? The bigger conflict will require much diplomatic initiative but why would any government want to prevent aid getting to ill, injured or starving people? Why would even people on opposite sides want to further disadvantage such vulnerable people? Why is our Government and others within the European Union or the wider international community not acting more urgently to try to achieve what the witnesses have described, with more humanitarians actors being accepted by the Syrian Government? Why are people who want to help the injured not allowed in and why are restrictions on deployment of medical aid not being lifted?

Médecins Sans Frontières, MSF, is a key partner of Irish Aid but why has it not accepted aid for operations in Syria? What do the groups want us to do more urgently or could we get direction on any initiatives that could be taken by parliamentarians to keep the pressure on and help these oppressed people? Is there any light at the end of the tunnel or are there any positives on the horizon, as the winter will be severe and difficult?

3:10 pm

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the witnesses and am sorry for having missed the presentations. I am grateful that the committee has convened this meeting to consider the humanitarian impact of the crisis. I have a specific question that has been asked of me by families, and I am particularly concerned about the impact of the crisis on children. My understanding now is that there are more than 1 million children displaced, with child labour common as families need children to work to eke out survival. Going into a cold and wet winter, education and health is way down the agenda.

Is there merit in the suggestion of some Irish families that the Irish Government could arrange for short-term fostering of Syrian refugee children by Irish host families until the condition in the homeland improves? That would only happen with the consent of Syrian parents. I see some merit in that. If there was a willingness to pursue this, we could consider the possibility of Ireland leading a European-wide initiative. There would be a cap on numbers as children would have educational and health-related needs, and families would have to be vetted. The process would have to be done right.

Families are in crisis in Syria and the solutions are complex and not obvious. These children may be in these conditions for another year or more. The people working with the organisations before us today work on the ground and may be in a position to help select children, for example, if families are willing for them to go. We have defence personnel who can help with logistics and movement, and although we are in a recession, we have public services that could be stretched, within reasonable limits. I am keen to hear the response.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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There have been many questions asked and we all fully appreciate the work being done by aid agencies, as well as the courage shown in keeping the issue to the fore and getting involved, as members have noted. We must all learn from the issues. Confilcts of this nature come up again and again, and in the past we have seen war in Bosnia and Iraq. There are sensitivities which accompany involvement in the internal affairs of a country, as we know from what has happened with the UN Security Council and a failure to get agreement to do anything. It has been a key factor. Whether we learn from that remains to be seen.

We have discussed this many times and there must be a sequence of events that can be triggered automatically when a crisis like this occurs that involves serious human rights abuse, famine or starvation as a result of war, even an internal war. There must be some means of addressing the problem, and secure corridors have been referred to. We know from the Bosnian experience that safe havens are not always safe.

Ms Jane-Ann McKenna:

I can attempt to address a few of the questions raised. Aid delivery in government-held areas as opposed to opposition areas has been raised a few times. As I mentioned, since the beginning of the year only 20 UN and International Rescue Committee convoys have been able to cross front lines. The majority of the aid within the UN is being delivered in government-held areas. There has been an argument that the issue violates Syrian sovereignty by crossing front lines and borders to deliver aid, and we have raised this as a major consideration. The current aid system is not working effectively for Syria, and there is a need for a level of innovation, flexibility and creativity by all actors to be able to deliver aid effectively in the region. We know the Syrian Arab Red Crescent has 10,000 people working on the ground, and they have managed to deliver aid effectively. There are numerous diaspora networks that are probably the most effective means of delivering aid on the ground, as opposed to larger western aid organisations like ourselves. There are limits on what we can do.

With regard to medical needs, although we can send medical supplies and technical equipment, there is a greater need for even more technical equipment and expertise. There are complex surgeries required and deep inside Syria there is nobody to do them; it is too dangerous for MSF to go there and we do not have permission to be there anyway. We can send supplies and medicine but there is not enough to save more lives on the ground.

The availability of medical facilities and workers has been mentioned; there is not one side or another which is doing right or wrong in this respect. We have seen threats from both sides - the opposition and the Syrian regime - when it comes to distributing medical aid.

We have received funding this year for our programmes in the central African republic - South Sudan and Chad- for which we are grateful. It is policy within MSF that we do not accept funding in highly politicised or conflict areas. Syria is one of them, as are Somalia and Mali. It is not a reflection on Irish Aid as a donor. Irish Aid is one of the few government agencies we will accept funding from. However, this maintains our own independence on the ground. When we go into these areas, whichever side is in control, we can say we are there with no agenda other than to deliver medical assistance.

3:20 pm

Mr. Barry Andrews:

I would like to reply to Deputy Smith's question about access to aid on the rebel side. The Tánaiste made a strong statement at the UN General Assembly. The proportion of Irish aid money that goes to NGOs should be properly calibrated to reflect need, whether it is through NGOs or UN. It does not matter as long it reflects need. That might require recalibration. The committee will have an opportunity to discuss the UN Security Council's response to the chemical weapons issue when the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Costello, appears but the response reflects an interpretation of the best interests of the main powers holding the veto and permanent membership rather than an assessment of the merits of any issue that comes before the council.

With regard to humanitarian access, if the UN is standing at the Turkish border, for example, with thousands of trucks full of humanitarian aid to go into the rebel side, naturally its officials will not do that unless they are welcomed by the Assad government. The norms of international humanitarian law are that they cannot be reasonably denied access but there has never been a proper interpretation of the concept of reasonable denial of access. Unfortunately, therefore, it is a grey area and it is difficult for any of us to have a strong opinion about it at this point. That is the current position. There is nothing to stop the General Assembly from passing a resolution and each UN member is entitled to sponsor a resolution of the assembly. That may be something the Government could consider in the context of humanitarian access.

Mr. Jonathan Edgar:

I refer to the importance of a humanitarian corridor. It will only come about by some diplomacy driven by the UN under pressure from politicians and the international community. The two sides in conflict will not do this on their own and they need to come under pressure to ensure this happens. I have no idea what that would look like but there needs to be an element of peace when it comes to humanitarian aid distribution. It happened in Iraq, the Balkans and Afghanistan to a certain extent and it can happen here. We were talking about the impact on families and children and what that means. The current situation is unique but I found when I was on the ground there last week that child soldiers are being recruited into fundamentalist Islamic organisations. Where there is a vacuum, which currently exists because there is an impasse, this is what will fill it, which is very worrying. The work done recently by the American and Russian governments to negotiate a pressure point on the UN to put pressure on the Syrian regime to talk to the rebel factions was essential. Any pressure parliamentarians can put on those bodies or actors will be critical.

We need to understand that the rebel side is not one unified body. There are five or six different organisations. Given the vacuum, that is creating a level of uncertainty that is not healthy within the country. Outside the political spectrum, the people who suffer are always the most vulnerable, particularly women and children, and that is what we are witnessing in northern Syria. The movement of people has increased considerably. When I was there in July, villages and towns were still operating in a war zone situation but people were still staying where they lived. That has changed and people have moved away from their homes. Those who can get across the border are in a better situation that those who are stuck in Syria.

The UN is not working across Syria; it is only working in specific areas. A huge volume of need is not being addressed by the organisation. Funding should go to where the need is greatest. That is right across Syria rather than being focused on one or two pockets in which the UN can operate.

Mr. Ros O'Sullivan:

I will go back over a few of the issues my colleagues have touched on. The UN is stymied in Syria because it is unable to move without the sanction of the government in Damascus and it will take something special for that to change. As it has not happened before, it will have to be something extra special and that is where the committee comes in, not us. We are on the ground, we are implementing and we are addressing humanitarian aid but the UN will have to change the way it works because of the way the situation not just in Syria but in the rest of the world is going today, which has become so complex.

There was a mention of the UN Security Council. If it was a baby of the 20th century, let us sort it out in the 21st century now. The council is not fit for purpose in certain contexts and, therefore, it is not a one-size-fits-all approach but that is all that has been allowed to date. It will take something special to change that and, unfortunately, our select group around the table will not be able to come up with that solution.

The question was posed as to whether there can be a humanitarian solution without a political solution. It is important to clarify that there is no such thing as a humanitarian solution. There is humanitarian assistance and humanitarian work but a political and diplomatic solution to the crisis is required and, in the meantime, there is a need for humanitarian work. One hopes that, at a certain point, there will be an opportunity for recovery and longer term recovery work, which some observers suggest will take decades before Syria returns to where it was before.

With regard to the humanitarian corridor, as my colleagues pointed out, there is no one Syrian opposition. An estimated 400 to 600 different groups and movements make up the sum of the Syrian opposition. They are loosely affiliated by one purpose and that is to see an end to the Assad regime. After that in some respects all bets are off. Some are more fundamentalist and others are more secular while some have a national focus but most have a local and a grassroots focus. We work in a different area from GOAL while MSF works in the area we are but the dynamics and the context are different in every part of Syria due to the make up of the different movements and groups and the struggle for power that is going on at a localised level. In examining how we approach the problem of delivering humanitarian assistance in a slow, considered and measured way, it is because this is probably the single most complex situation we have ever come across. There is no book to which we can refer.

We are experienced and we know what we are doing. We have approaches but it is about flexibility, adaptability and working through the problem. It is about dialogue with the different movements and groups that are now starting to take control in different areas and locations. The amount of tea we drink in Syria right now is unbelievable, because that is how we dialogue. We sit there with groups and movements and engage in dialogue.

In terms of the humanitarian corridors, through a combination of the UN being stymied, they are not able to operate as they were designed to operate. There is no UN operating in the geographic area where we work. When one is talking about a greater balance in where funding goes, as mentioned by one of my colleagues, the funding should go to where the identified needs are and to those agencies that are addressing those needs realistically on the ground. Where the UN is running refugee camps, a proportional amount of aid should go to it. We must recognise the NGOs who are in certain parts of Syria where the UN is struggling to operate legitimately. I will ask my colleague, Peter Doyle, the desk officer for Syria and Lebanon to respond more specifically to Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan's question on camps. He is more familiar with the Lebanese context than I.

3:30 pm

Mr. Peter Doyle:

I wish to address the issues Deputy O'Sullivan raised-----

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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We are coming to the end of the meeting. I do not wish to cut anybody short but we are coming to the end. In 15 minutes I must be a different location, namely, in the House. I am sorry about that.

Mr. Peter Doyle:

The issue of the larger scale camps in the Lebanon was raised. The situation there at present is that the Lebanese Government does not want those large-scale camps so it is limiting the types of accommodation that are available to refugees. For example, refugees could be staying in tented settlements and there is a maximum limit of 20 families per settlement. They are also staying in collective centres which could be farm buildings or rented buildings that are refurbished by NGOs, such as Concern, to host refugees. Many refugees are just renting. They could be renting a garage or plot of land. What we are finding is that those solutions are now becoming saturated. The number of evictions has increased. We have found since September that people can no longer afford to keep paying for some of the accommodation options they have. It is not that we are necessarily calling for large-scale camps or that we think this is the ideal solution. It is not. There are advantages and disadvantages to everything. We are seeking that the Lebanese authorities would reconsider the prohibition on large-scale camps because we must think about other solutions, given the saturation levels we have in all the other types of accommodation.

Someone also asked about sectarianism in the camps. What we are finding in northern Lebanon where we work is that it is quite a homogenous refugee population that comes mostly from the same sect. Where tension seems to be increasing is between the host Lebanese population and the oncoming refugees. It is one of the reasons why organisations such as Concern tries to provide assistance that will also benefit the host population and not just the refugees. For example, some of our water supply projects benefit both local people and refugees. In addition, we are going to try to facilitate dialogue between refugees and host populations to try and talk through issues and calm any tensions that might arise.

I will address the impact on children. It is wonderful to think there are families in Ireland that would be willing to take in refugee children. I am sure they would look after them very well and be very welcoming. However, from our perspective we think it is probably better to keep families together as much as possible. Some of the families have fled fighting and they might already have lost some family members and are already traumatised. To take a child out of that context and bring it to a far away, strange country would probably increase the trauma for them and their families. We prefer to provide assistance to families as a unit and to keep them in the country. It is one of the reasons we are looking at doing an education programme in Lebanon for Syrian refugee children who may well have missed two or three years of school at this stage. The aim is to try to get them back into the schooling system so they do not lose even more time in education, which would only disadvantage them further in their lives ahead.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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We all got an e-mail referring to one of the cities in Syria that is surrounded by the Syrian army and is under constant shelling.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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A telephone is interfering with the sound.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I am sorry. There are also air strikes. The fear is that the city will be overrun and the civilian population will be slaughtered. Are the witnesses aware that the civilian population is surrounded in situations where media blackouts seems to be in place? If such a city is overrun we are talking about a massacre of the entire civilian population. Has that come across the radar of the witnesses?

Ms Jane-Ann McKenna:

There are such enclaves all over Syria. There is a lack of information coming out. People are not there. I read earlier a statement from one of our hospitals. We are in an area that is being bombarded on a regular basis and people are dying every day. It is only a very small percentage of cases that get reported where one hears about a school that has been attacked. The majority of cases are not reported. None of the incidents we witnessed in the two weeks in August were reported. There is much under-reporting. However, from our perspective it is important to continuously emphasise to the public that incidents are happening every day. It is not something that was happening last year or before the chemical weapons attack. Incidents are still occurring every day whether we hear about it in the media or not.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I thank the witnesses from each of the organisations and congratulate them on their work, commitment and continued perseverance in a very difficult and trying situation.

The joint committee went into private session at 3.47 p.m. and adjourned at 3.55 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 16 October 2013.