Over 1M in Besieged Syria Towns 02/09 06:21
NEW YORK (AP) -- More than one million Syrians are trapped in besieged
areas, a new report says in a challenge to the United Nations, which estimates
just half that amount and has been accused by some aid groups of underplaying a
The fate of Syria's besieged is at the heart of peace talks that quickly
fell apart last week in Geneva and are set to resume by Feb. 25. Negotiators
for the opposition had insisted that the Syrian government stop besieging
civilians before talks could truly begin.
The new Siege Watch report, issued Tuesday by the Netherlands-based aid
group PAX and the Washington-based Syria Institute, comes a month after images
posted online of emaciated children and adults led to an international outcry
and rare convoys of aid to a handful of Syrian communities.
The town featured in the images, Madaya, was not listed by the U.N. as a
besieged community at the time. Aid workers who entered last month reported
seeing skeletal people and parents who gave their children sleeping pills to
calm their hunger.
The Siege Watch report says 1.09 million people are living in 46 besieged
communities in Syria, far more than the 18 listed by the U.N. It says most are
besieged by the Syrian government in the suburbs of Damascus, the capital, and
Homs. In the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, about 200,000 people are besieged by
both the Islamic State group and the Syrian government. The report lists two
communities besieged by armed opposition groups.
"Electricity and running water are usually cut off, and there is limited (if
any) access to food, fuel, and medical care," the report says. Deaths have been
reported from malnutrition, disease, hypothermia and poisoning while scavenging
for food. Some communities have been besieged for months or years.
The estimates are based largely on information provided by local contacts in
the communities, including local councils, medical workers and citizen
With the spotlight on the besieged, the United Nations last month raised its
estimate by almost 100,000, saying that 486,700 people are affected.
That's still less than some aid groups and others estimate. They argue that
the world body's numbers set the tone for humanitarian response efforts and
that more urgency is needed.
"Many remain unaware of the extent of the crisis, and the international
response has been muted as a result," the Siege Watch report says.
In meetings this week with U.N. officials and member states, PAX says it
will call for the immediate lifting of sieges as a way to build confidence in
the peace talks. Syria Institute executive director Valerie Szybala said the
new report has not been shared with Syria's government.
The U.N. says it considers an area besieged if three criteria are met: The
area is surrounded by "armed actors," humanitarian aid cannot regularly enter,
and civilians, including the sick and wounded, cannot enter and exit.
"Of course, differences of opinion do occur," Amanda Pitt, a U.N.
humanitarian spokeswoman, said of criticism of the U.N.'s estimates.
The aid group Doctors Without Borders goes well beyond the figure in the
Siege Watch report, estimating that 1.9 million Syrians live in besieged areas.
Doctors Without Borders said it defines Syria's besieged areas as ones "that
are surrounded by strategic barriers (military or non-military) that prevent
the regular and safe inflow of humanitarian assistance and the regular and safe
outflow of civilians, the wounded and the sick."
The United Nations places an estimated 4.5 million Syrians into a separate
category called "hard to reach," a step below besieged. It defines that as "an
area that is not regularly accessible to humanitarian actors for the purpose of
sustained humanitarian programming as a result of denial of access."
Doctors Without Borders said it doesn't use that distinction, "as the
medical consequences for both types of region are similar." Medical supplies
are almost never allowed in, it said, and medical evacuations are rarely
The aid group has said that since convoys reached Madaya last month, at
least 16 people there have died and at least 33 were in danger of dying of
The United Nations now considers the town of 20,000 besieged.