BEIRUT: Around 4 million people in Syria are experiencing food insecurity, the U.N.’s food agency said Tuesday, warning that rising violence – including direct attacks on its own trucks and buildings – was preventing the body from reaching those most vulnerable.
“The WFP faces immense challenges that vary on a daily basis,” Laure Chadraoui, public information officer for the World Food Program’s Syria regional response, told The Daily Star.
While Chadraoui insisted that the WFP was not a direct target of attacks, “we are often caught in the crossfire,” she said. In March, three WFP trucks – carrying food for 17,000 people – were detained by an armed group in rural Deir al-Zor, in the east of the country. While the drivers and trucks were released, the food has not yet been recovered, suggesting it was perhaps a targeted attack.
WFP subcontracted trucks are often stopped at checkpoints, and “in many instances are forced to turn back, or sometimes hijacked,” a statement from the group added.
Since the U.N. body has been operating in Syria in December 2011, there have been 20 such attacks against its network, the WFP said, although sometimes this has included likely indiscriminate aerial attacks.
In Adraa, on the outskirts of Damascus, a mortar bomb recently fell on a WFP warehouse there, rendering staff unable to retrieve the food inside.
“It has become a struggle now to move food from one area to the other with our warehouses and trucks getting increasingly caught in the crossfire,” said Muhannad Hadi, WFP’s Regional Emergency Coordinator for the Syria crisis, according to the statement from the group. “We are sometimes left with the difficult decision of calling off the dispatch of food to a place where we know there is dire need for it.”
In February, the WFP reached 1.7 million people within Syria. Less than a third of those, 500,000, were living in opposition-held areas.
The issue of aid distribution in Syria is a complex one, given that nearly all NGOs require government approval to operate legally in the country, and are then often subject to criticism for being partisan. Access to certain areas can be denied, with some groups claiming aid to rebel-held areas has been withheld or in some cases stolen. Sometimes levels of violence make distribution simply unfeasible.
“WFP has limited access and where millions of people are believed to be in acute need of food,” the group said in their statement.
The body is facing “enormous challenges” reaching certain areas of rural Damascus, Quneitra, Deraa, Deir al-Zor, and Raqqa, and many parts of the north of the country, particularly Aleppo and Idlib – all largely rebel-held areas – Chadraoui said.
“WFP tries to reach some hard to reach areas whenever we see a window of opportunity,” she added.
“We had some breakthroughs when we reached Houla in Homs, Ras al-Ain in Hassakeh, Azaz in Aleppo, Al-Bukamal in Deir al-Zor, Daraya, Harasta and Douma in Rif Damascus, Maaret al-Numaan in Idlib, and some areas in Deraa, all of which necessitate the crossing of multiple front lines.”
“But despite repeated attempts, WFP has recently not been able to reach these areas again,” she added.
Chadraoui stressed that as the agency did not know the identity of those responsible for attacks on WFP trucks, “we cannot associate them with one party or the other. So we appeal to all parties to respect and observe humanitarian principles and to guarantee the safe passage of staff, aid trucks and our humanitarian partners’ personnel.”
The WFP’s partner in Syria, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, has said that up to 4 million people are experiencing food insecurity. Being food secure, according to the World Health Organization, is having physical and economic access to enough food to meet dietary needs.
As U.N. agencies cannot work in Syria without the government’s consent, Human Rights Watch in February urged the Security Council to call for the regime to authorize cross-border aid missions, most likely from Turkey, to help aid reach these difficult areas.
The Security Council could also override the Syrian government’s decision, and call for U.N. aid to be allowed to enter the country.
Save for this, permission for cross-border aid operations must be granted by the Turkish and Syrian governments, and any rebel groups in control of border areas.