"The humanitarian situation is precarious – indeed it's catastrophic"
One of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world is taking place in and around Syria. Switzerland's international cooperation has been active on the ground since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011 to alleviate suffering and save lives. In this interview, Caroline Tissot, the SDC's regional head of international cooperation for the Middle East, explains how Switzerland is working to protect the Syrian civilian population and their livelihoods, and to provide education.
Six million people in Syria are internally displaced. They mostly live in camps like here in the town of Selkin in the northwest of the country. © OCHA/Ali Haj Suleiman
On 9 January 2023, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution confirming the extension of the cross-border aid mechanism. In its role as co-penholder for the Syria humanitarian file, Switzerland worked with Brazil within the council to achieve this decision. Switzerland is not only involved through its role on the Security Council, but is also working on the ground. Its programmes in and around Syria constitute one of the largest humanitarian operations in Switzerland's history.
Ms Tissot, how do you assess the current humanitarian situation in Syria?
After 11 years of conflict in Syria, the humanitarian situation in the country is precarious, indeed it's catastrophic. The UN conducts annual assessments and since 2020 the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance has been increasing. Food insecurity is also at an all-time high, affecting 12.1 million people, with rising numbers of children suffering from malnutrition.
The UN estimates that 15.3 million people will need humanitarian assistance in 2023 – a record high since the conflict began. Rising prices for food, fuel, basic goods and services are pushing more and more households into debt to cover their basic needs. Many Syrians are therefore living on credit. In addition, Syria is currently facing a cholera epidemic, with over 60,000 suspected cases reported since last August. The causes of this epidemic are multiple – the collapse of public infrastructure among them. That is why the ICRC has launched its 'too big to fail' initiative, to maintain essential public services, including water and sanitation.
How is Switzerland involved in the Syria crisis?
As the conflict impacts the entire region, Switzerland is working to help the people affected by the Syrian crisis with a regional cooperation programme. In addition to Syria, the programme covers Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and southern Turkey. The objective is to meet the needs of those worst affected by the crisis, to ensure that their rights are respected and their voices heard.
There are six million internally displaced people in Syria and five million refugees in the region. As the majority of these people have been displaced for several years, Switzerland runs projects that can help them in the long term, through resilience-based approaches and the integration of local communities and displaced people in all stages of the projects. Since 2011, Switzerland has provided more than CHF 610 million for the affected populations in the region – Switzerland's largest aid programme ever. In some countries, such as Lebanon, Switzerland's involvement extends to people affected by the internal crisis.
Access to people in need is not always easy in Syria. How do you go about providing the aid?
Syria is a divided country, which is why Switzerland directs its humanitarian aid according to need, regardless of where people are, in keeping with humanitarian principles. In practice, this means working with partners who use different methods in providing aid, including across borders and front lines. For example, some of the humanitarian aid to north-western Syria is organised from Turkey. We provide funding for several UN organisations, which we also support by seconding Swiss specialists to their operations. We also provide funding for a number of NGOs.
We also need to bear in mind that Swiss humanitarian aid is just part of our overall approach in Syria. Switzerland is also working for a political solution to the conflict involving Syrian civil society and the promotion of international humanitarian law, human rights and the fight against impunity.
What are the priorities for Swiss humanitarian aid in Syria?
The priorities of the regional cooperation programme are education, conflict prevention and peacebuilding, water, hygiene and sanitation, and migration and protection issues. In Syria, we also fund emergency aid for the most vulnerable. We also focus on early recovery projects to build resilience and reduce dependency on humanitarian aid, now and in the future.
We know how important education is for children, their future and the protection of their rights and integrity, but also for societies as a whole. In Jordan, Switzerland works with Relief International and the Norwegian Refugee Council to provide schooling for refugee children and to address the most important issues in the camps and host communities. In northern Syria, 800,000 children do not attend school and 60% of the 1,400 IDP camps in the region do not have primary schools. This is a real crisis in education and child protection.
Together with the NGO People in Need, we are improving access to and the quality of formal and non-formal education in northern Syria. For Switzerland, providing these children with a proper education in a secure environment is crucial, as is their general well-being. To this end, premises have been renovated, sanitary facilities improved and 659 teachers trained (317 men and 342 women).