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Effectiveness of UN Syrian aid questioned

More than nine million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Syrian refugees walk among tents at Karkamis’ refugee camp on 16 January, 2014 near the town of Gaziantep, south of Turkey. Picture: AFP.

GAZIANTEP Turkey - Seven weeks after UN aid trucks crossed from Turkey into Syria for the first time, aid workers and officials in this southern Turkish humanitarian hub still have no idea exactly where the supplies ended up.

The convoy of 78 trucks taking food, bedding and medicine to Syria's mainly Kurdish Hasakah province was seen as a test of the willingness of Syria's authorities and rebels to abide by a UN resolution urging them to let aid across front lines and borders by the most direct routes.

But no distribution lists have been made available for this or any other UN delivery since the resolution, aid workers in Gaziantep near the Turkish border say, hampering the efforts of a plethora of charities trying to co-ordinate a response to the world's biggest humanitarian crisis.

"We still don't know where it went and we're not comfortable with this. The UN is constrained by the (Syrian) regime," said a Turkish official, speaking under condition he not be identified as his government has not taken a public stance on the issue.

Syria's war has killed more than 150,000 people, with more than nine million in need of humanitarian assistance. It's complicated patchwork of fighting has made aid provision harder.

The United Nations estimates 3.5 million of the people in need of aid live in areas that are difficult or impossible to reach for humanitarian workers, including more than 240,000 people besieged by government or opposition forces.

The convoy, dispatched over a largely deserted frontier to a region controlled by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, was meant to be a test case to show that the issue of access can be dealt with under the UN resolution. But there were doubts from the outset over whether assistance would reach those in rebel-held areas in need.

According to stipulations set by the Syrian government, the delivery was passed to Syrian partner agencies including the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

The UN resolution, adopted by the Security Council in February in a rare show of unanimity on Syria, sought to boost humanitarian access and threatened to take "further steps" if Syria's government and the rebels failed to comply.

But the lack of transparency around UN deliveries makes that hard to monitor, according to international non-government organisations (NGOs), which wrote to several UN Security Council members last month warning a lack of coordination meant assistance was not reaching priority areas.

"I can't know if it's done well or badly as the UN hasn't told us exactly who the aid has gone to," said the project manager of one Western NGO, declining to be identified for fear of jeopardising already fragile relations with the world body.

"SCATTERED LIKE SEEDS"

The United Nations has delivered shipments of aid from within Syria to some rebel-held areas, including most recently in the northern districts of Aleppo and Idlib, but the Hasakah delivery is so far the world body's only attempt to reach rebel-held areas from across the Turkish border.

NGOs complain that despite multiple requests, the United Nations has so far failed to share its methodology in identifying those most in need and monitoring where its aid goes after delivery. Often it does not even disclose what its food aid includes.

That makes effective coordination among the dozens of Syrian and international agencies operating out of Turkey, most of them using the southern city of Gaziantep as a hub, unnecessarily complicated, they say.

"STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION"

A meeting in Gaziantep at the end of last month brought together more than 100 aid workers from the United Nations and Syrian and international NGOs. Delegates said frustration that the world body had to seek approval from the Syrian government for its deliveries in spite of the February Security Council resolution was the "elephant in the room".

He said Syrian NGOs needed the United Nations to help direct funding because donors trusted the world body.

Fisher, the Jordan-based UN humanitarian coordinator, said the United Nations was "very sympathetic" to NGO concerns over access to donor money.

Several NGOs also called on the United Nations to help overcome other barriers such as administrative hurdles by lobbying host nations including Turkey, which had to agree to the UN convoy crossing in March.

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