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ROME, Jan 8 2016 (IPS) - The Syrian government says it will allow humanitarian aid into the besieged rebel-held town of Madaya, according to the United Nations, following reports and horrific pictures of residents starving to death. Aid is expected to reach the area by Monday, but for some it is too little and too late.
The plight of Madaya’s citizens only came to the world’s attention when residents somehow managed to get video out to Britain’s independent television network, ITV. The images of skeletal children and babies rocked the world’s conscience. The report said many were reduced to eating dirt and grass. Some, it said, had eaten cats and dogs.
“The people of Syria are on their knees. The economy has collapsed, essential infrastructure like water and power networks are hanging by a thread, and on top of that a very cold winter is bearing down,” said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). “12 million people inside Syria are in dire need for help.”
The United Nations and ICRC was granted access yesterday but the operation isn’t expected to happen before Sunday or Monday. The ICRC in Syria said details are still being sorted out. The United Nations World Food Programme, WFP, said it expected food convoys to make it to the area by Monday.
The ICRC said its priority, with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, is to bring assistance to 500,000 people living in besieged or difficult to reach areas, such as Madaya, Zabadani, Foua and Kefraya.
“Almost 42,000 people remaining in Madaya are at risk of further hunger and starvation. The UN has received credible reports of people dying from starvation and being killed while trying to leave. On 5 January 2016, a 53- year old man reportedly died of starvation while his family of five continues to suffer from severe malnutrition,” a UN statement said on Thursday.
The UN said it had government permission to access Kefraya and Foah in the north of the country besieged by rebel forces while Madaya and Zabadani are besieged by government forces.
Up to 4.5 million people in Syria live in hard-to-reach areas, including nearly 400,000 people in 15 besieged locations who do not have access to the life-saving aid they urgently need.
Medicins Sans Frontieres, (MSF), called the noose around Madaya, “a total stranglehold siege.” It said, “Around 20,000 residents of the town are facing life-threatening deprivation of the basics for survival, and 23 patients in the health centre supported by MSF have died of starvation since December 1. MSF welcomes reports that the Syrian government will allow food supplies into the area, but urges that an immediate life-saving delivery of medicine across the siege line should also be a priority, and calls for sick patients to be allowed urgent medical evacuation to safe places of treatment.”
Of the 23 people who died, said MSF, six were under one-year old, five were over 60, and the other 12 were between five and 60. It said this shows the situation is affecting all age-groups.
The last aid trucks took in medical and humanitarian supplies to the village in October, and then some people were evacuated in December but there has been no new humanitarian access since despite repeated requests.
“Up to 4.5 million people in Syria live in hard-to-reach areas including nearly 400,000 people in 15 besieged locations who do not have access to the life-saving aid they urgently need,” said the U.N. statement. “The ongoing conflict continues to hamper the humanitarian response and freedom of movement is restricted by the presence of armed actors and landmines.”
The new head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, said on Thursday that with record numbers of refugees and displaced people worldwide there needs to be greater diplomatic effort to find solutions to conflicts and abuses driving people from their homes.
“UNHCR is navigating extraordinarily difficult waters,” said Filippo Grandi at his debut press conference after taking office on January 1. “We owe it first and foremost to the forcibly displaced themselves, but we also owe it to States…States are desperately looking for solutions to situations involving refugees,” he declared, and stressed: “Even under more desperate circumstances we have to think of solving displacement.”
Grandi stressed that countries which host especially large numbers of refugees, such as Lebanon, now home to over one million Syrians, need better help. He also highlighted resettlement, humanitarian visas and family reunification as tools which can allow refugees to find safety in other countries, “not through trafficking but by what we call legal pathways.”
Aid agencies are stretched with no respite in the streams of people leaving conflict areas and seeking assistance. WFP said on Wednesday that it has sufficient funding to provide food assistance to 526,000 vulnerable Syrian refugees in Jordan for the first five months of the current year.
“This is the first time since December 2013 when we managed to receive enough funding to secure assistance over the next five months,” said Shaza Moghraby, WFP’s spokesperson in Jordan.
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