On Monday, 21 October 2019 Robert Onus, emergency manager for Syria spoke to ABC The World TV presenter Beverley O’Connor about the difficult decision to suspend activities in northeastern Syria
Beverley O’Connor: Let's return now to Syria where more than 200,000 refugees are now known to have been displaced since the Turkish offensive in the country's north. For more on this latest humanitarian crisis, I’m joined by Robert Onus. He's the emergency manager for Syria at MSF - Doctors Without Borders. Thank you for talking to us. MSF made the difficult decision to suspend operations in northeastern Syria. What led to that decision?
Robert Onus: Sure, the conflict really erupted in the last week or so and our teams have been present in northeast Syria for many years supporting hospitals, health centres and people in displacement camps. As the conflict erupted, we really saw that we couldn’t negotiate or ensure the safety of our staff and patients.
There are many different armed groups who are fighting right now in the northeast of Syria and without those assurances that our staff would be safe, it becomes almost impossible to be able to deliver assistance to the population who very much needs it.
Beverley O’Connor: To that point, what is happening to that group of people that you were servicing before?
Robert Onus: It's a very good question. It's always important to recognise that in north-east Syria, there was already large scale humanitarian needs, more than 100,000 people living in displacement camps before this conflict, and now we see tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands more being displaced into that same area. Many of those camps have been disbanded, people have fled from the conflict and, right now, we’re very concerned about the lack of access to water, lack of access to medical care and the impending winter, which will make life more difficult for people.
Beverley O’Connor: As you pointed out the resources of these people must be at an incredible low?
Robert Onus: Yes, you often see it that people's resources were already stretched and with the conflict, many houses were destroyed in cities like Raqqa. People didn’t have the opportunity to return, so they were already living in these displacement camps in very basic living conditions, in a tent with six or seven people in one very small space, water and food being delivered by humanitarian organisations. Now with organisations like ours have left, those people who were one hundred percent reliant on that assistance have very few places to turn. On top of that, you have the newly displaced who are literally fleeing with nothing more than what they can carry and finding shelter wherever they can – for many that’s in schools and shops, or sometimes with family. For those people too, it's a difficult situation to be in.
Beverley O’Connor: The current ceasefire that was declared a few days ago, did that give you any opportunity to provide support, organisations like yours?
Robert Onus: It’s certainly a good sign, as long as we can limit the suffering of the people in northeast Syria, that's always going to be a good sign. For us, we continue to try to provide water where we can, especially to those displacement camps and displaced populations. But knowing that this cessation of hostilities is only temporary at this stage, it's a bit too early for us to say we can then go back at full scale and start supporting the hospitals and health centres we have been supporting over the last several years.
Beverley O’Connor: We hear talk of ethnic cleansing as a large number of those people that are moving are Kurds. How concerning is it for people in your organisation is that possibility?
Robert Onus: For us, certainly, the focus is always going to be on ensuring that all people have access to humanitarian assistance, regardless of their religion or ethnicity. I can't really comment on whether or not there has been any forced displacement of specific ethnic groups. Until there is full and free access for humanitarian organisations, until that population has access to that humanitarian assistance, I think it is important that we continue to monitor what is happening in northeast Syria and continue to push for that freedom, which is legislated under international humanitarian law.
Beverley O’Connor: Robert in your time in this field, is this crisis in Syria that now has been going on for so many years, among the worst that you’ve seen?
Robert Onus: I think it's very difficult to compare one crisis with another, and that's not something we would normally do. What's important here is to look at the suffering, and that suffering occurs across a region, across a block, a wide population, but also at an individual level. It's not just from the direct impacts of the conflict, it's not just bombing and the shelling and displacement. All of that also causes breakages in existing systems. The health system that was functioning in some form or another a month or so ago is very much dysfunctional now because a lot of the organisations have pulled out, or people can’t access those hospitals. So the layers of suffering and the layers of hardship that are created by this conflict, especially this new wave of conflict, are sometimes underestimated and certainly need an increased and adequate international response.