It's Gonna Be Tough for Millions: IFRC Head Warns Sanctions May Aggravate Situation in Syria
18:07 GMT 21.09.2022 (Updated: 18:08 GMT 21.09.2022)
© Sputnik / Mikhail VoskresenskiyA boy feeds a cow in the Harasta district, northeast of Damascus, Syria
© Sputnik / Mikhail Voskresenskiy/
The global security situation remains fragile, while food and fuel crisis also affected many regions worldwide, adding to local crises.
Sputnik talked to Francesco Rocca, the president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Сrescent Societies, about the most pressing issues that face the humanitarian organization and about the way people can help the most vulnerable people in Syria and other troubled regions.
Sputnik: We will start with the Syria question. How many people are currently on the ground from your organization and is it enough or you need more?
Francesco Rocca: We have in Syria the Syrian Arab Red Crescent present with thousands of volunteers all over the country. So I think the problem is not the number of our volunteers and staff, it is more about the financial support, the concrete support that they can receive at the international level to fulfill their mandate.
Because we are talking about millions in need, the number of IDPs in need of everything is something that is still really scary. And unfortunately, Syria now has become a neglected crisis. So while too many are still suffering the consequences of the war, Syria has become maybe one of the poorest countries in the world.
Sputnik: Do you have access to all areas or are there some places which you cannot enter?
Francesco Rocca: Still, unfortunately, if you look at the Syrian border before the 2011, of course, there are still areas which are technically occupied by different entities. But the movement, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is going to work almost everywhere. So this is something that is always negotiated with the several outdoor parties that are involved. But in any case, I think, that access has always been since the beginning of the crisis, one of the main challenges in the country.
Sputnik: And what would you need in order to access all the parts of Syria?
Francesco Rocca: Maybe, I think that the main issue that is not only about Syria, but it's about many places in the world in these difficult times, is the risk of politicization of the aid. We historically are the neutral organization by excellence and this should continue. So we hope that everyone involved in Syria or everywhere, respect our role and contribution to alleviate the suffering of the most vulnerable in that country and elsewhere. So it's quite a difficult situation and I do hope that this will recover soon, even if I am not too optimistic in the short term.
© AP Photo / Bilal Hussein This June 16, 2019, file photo, shows a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal
This June 16, 2019, file photo, shows a Syrian refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal
© AP Photo / Bilal Hussein
Sputnik: Have you spoken to Russia about getting better access in Syria?
Francesco Rocca: Honestly, it's not my role to speak with the Russian, or Syrian, or Turkish authorities. This is more about the negotiation that are led by our colleagues from the ICRC but normally the issue is not in the areas where the Syrian and the Russian army are present and normally, we feel that there is quite a respect for our role and mandate in these areas.
Sputnik: And winter is coming. So ahead of winter, you might need more funding. How much more? And do you think you will have what you need to continue operating in Syria.
Francesco Rocca: We should make another interview in a few months. We will have an answer. My concern is that because of these energy crisis and the financial crisis we are hearing many rumors about cutting of humanitarian aid in Syria and everywhere and this is a reason of concern for those who are in need of support especially in Syria. But I would say that this is not a political judgment, it's about the sanctions that sometimes are affecting the most vulnerable.
Sputnik: Yes, I just wanted to ask you, how is your work impacted by the anti-Russian and anti-Syrian sanctions?
Francesco Rocca: I think that it has become more complicated and more bureaucratic, sometimes, in this country, in other places of the world. So, we always, when there are decisions to adopt sanctions, which are political decisions, we always try to negotiate the sanctions [relief] for the humanitarian agencies and humanitarian aid. That, for us, should be mandatory, just to respect the neutrality of our role, because we are not part of the political debate and discussion. We do not take sides in any circumstances, and this is why we should hope that, in the future, we can address this issue better and better.
But once again, it’s just to protect our role on the field, because it's really painful. Now, during my field visit to see the consequences, and you started with the question about the winter season and the cold in Syria: it's very tough, very tough for millions.
© AFP 2022 / Fabio BucciarelliSyrian refugees stand inside the Moria camp during the demostration against the deal between EU and Turkey, on March 24, 2016 in Lesbos.
Syrian refugees stand inside the Moria camp during the demostration against the deal between EU and Turkey, on March 24, 2016 in Lesbos.
Sputnik: And you just mentioned that it's not your role to speak to the Assad government, but maybe are you in some contacts? How is the cooperation?
Francesco Rocca: The cooperation, for me, it's about the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Since I don't receive complaints, for me, everything is fine. So, our role as an international federation is a bit different. We support the role of the national societies, in Syria, in Russia, in Ukraine.
My role is not a political role, to engage with political leaders, but to talk with my fellow presidents, just to listen to them about their difficulties and challenges, their successes when they happen, so this is my world.
Sputnik: This part of conversation is going well?
Francesco Rocca: Yes, no, no, no fine. I'm very proud about the role the Syrian Arab Red Crescent center is playing since the beginning of the war. Unfortunately, we lost many volunteers, especially at the beginning, just because of this politicization of the aid, because at the beginning of the crisis, I remember many, too many, saying that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent was too close to the government, which was not true.
They were only an expression of the civil society and in the civil society, the pro-government and the anti-government, they are all working together for the most neglected ones. It is the role of the Red Cross, Red Crescent everywhere, and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent is one of the best examples of this.
Sputnik: So, they were, like, worried to mention that they work there, in order not to have their profile looking bad, you're saying?
Francesco Rocca: No, if I understood correctly, so we are talking about the beginning. At the beginning, we felt that someone tried to involve the Syrian Arab Red Crescent center in politics, which at that time was a big lie. But this had consequences, because the volunteers at one point, especially at the beginning, became targets. It’s not the case that we lost the vast number of volunteers in the first three years of the war.
Sputnik: But now…
Francesco Rocca: Fortunately, we were able to recover facts. The facts, the way they work at the community level, spoke for themselves. This is our best shield, to work with facts.
© AP Photo / Hassan AmmarIn this July 15, 2018 file photo, a Syrian national flag with a picture of Syrian President Bashar Assad flies at an Army check point, in the town of Douma in the eastern Ghouta region, near Damascus, Syria.
In this July 15, 2018 file photo, a Syrian national flag with a picture of Syrian President Bashar Assad flies at an Army check point, in the town of Douma in the eastern Ghouta region, near Damascus, Syria.
© AP Photo / Hassan Ammar
Sputnik: If you don't mind now moving to the food crisis. So what is your mission here during the GA in terms of the food crisis? Do you plan to propose some kind of mechanism to sort of alleviate it ?
Francesco Rocca: The idea is , on too many occasions it's quite a complex discussion, because this is not the first time that we are experiencing a food crisis especially in Africa. Warnings and the early warnings came. We couldn’t intervene even before.
But now once, once again, we are responding to the emergencies and not to prevent those crises to happen. So, what we are asking is – to avoid in the future these kinds of crises happening again, because we know, especially in some parts of Africa, this unfortunately every ten number of years could happen – we do need a systemic approach, we need a completely different system. The humanitarian answer is not the only one, is not the one we have to work only. We do need political will, we do need political support in a dialogue with the government to set up a different model to answer, to prevent, these kinds of crises to happen.
Sputnik: Do you have a concrete plan here or proposal for the countries during the GA?
Francesco Rocca: No, because this must be led by the politicians. We are ready to support, we are ready to provide. What we are asking is to show political will. At the moment, we are stuck doing our role with professionalism, with commitment, but what we want to say is that this is not enough.
It’s not enough to provide dignity to a human being solely with a dish of rice and chicken. So we are talking more than this. We are talking about protecting their livelihoods and protecting their agriculture. We know that for example, the nomadic communities in Somalia or in Kenya, in other parts of Africa, they move, and we know this in advance.
So, this is why we need to support these communities. It’s very naive, especially watching the western countries, the western perspective, it's very naive not to understand that, especially watching the Horn of Africa. I started as a volunteer. This is the story that I always try to tell. I started to be a volunteer in 1988, receiving migrants and desperate migrants from the Horn of Africa, and still after 34 years, we are still receiving migrants and people that are escaping from there. Why? Because of the several crises: the food insecurity and the wars, this is something that should be fixed by the international community. If not, they will move. And this is absolutely normal, because everyone is in search of security.
Sputnik: And which countries are you meeting during this GA and which do you think could be the most helpful in tackling the food crisis?
Francesco Rocca: Yes, we have a high-level event organized by the government and OCHA. But we are having several bilaterals with the secretary general of the federation these days. I'm moving around to speak in these meetings. He is having more bilateral meetings just to go into details for our operations. This is the way we are dividing our job here in New York and to try to create more awareness and sensibility on these topics, hoping to find enough resources to fund our activities.
© AP Photo / Efrem LukatskyUkrainian soldiers fire at Russian positions from a U.S.-supplied M777 howitzer in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region Saturday, June 18, 2022
Ukrainian soldiers fire at Russian positions from a U.S.-supplied M777 howitzer in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region Saturday, June 18, 2022
© AP Photo / Efrem Lukatsky
Sputnik: And do you think that this Ukrainian crisis and the polarization of the world as a result of the situation has worsened your work? Like, countries are more against each other, refusing to cooperate on many levels. Is it somehow impacting tackling of the food crisis for you?
Francesco Rocca: Maybe. Maybe. Honestly, we will see now what is going to happen there, especially talking about food insecurity. But for sure, my concern is about something that is impacting and exacerbating the food insecurity, which is the climate change. To fix the climate change, we do need to find a common ground, and the polarization that we are living and we are passing by is something that is unfortunately not [at full?].
So we do need everyone to be involved in this discussion. There should be a level on which we don't need polarization, because it's about our global destiny. We are one humanity, there are not two humanities. So when it comes to humanity, we should find a common ground. Unfortunately, this is not seeming the right time to do it.
Sputnik: I have to say that even the Americans and Chinese often say they cooperate on climate. They avoid many topics but on climate, they always say they cooperate. So I hope that's true for your case. Do you support the idea of the UN working on exporting Russian foreign fertilizers back in the markets? Because they are having troubles right. being impacted. The companies are impacted by the sanctions there are sort of impediments.
Francesco Rocca: I support any initiative that tries to alleviate the needs of the most vulnerable and the most vulnerable countries in the world. So honestly, I think that the grain and the fertilizer if they are needed to support places, which are suffering from the consequences of the climate change, the consequences of the big drought that vast part of Africa is living, of course we support any attempt to find the common ground for this crisis. And I think that this is the right direction that the UN Secretary General is starting to follow.
© AP Photo / Emrah GurelA boat with Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and U.N. officials heads to the Sierra Leone-flagged cargo ship Razoni, to check if the grain shipment is in accordance with a crucial agreement signed last month by Moscow and Kyiv, at an inspection area in the Black Sea off the coast of Istanbul, Turkey, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022
A boat with Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and U.N. officials heads to the Sierra Leone-flagged cargo ship Razoni, to check if the grain shipment is in accordance with a crucial agreement signed last month by Moscow and Kyiv, at an inspection area in the Black Sea off the coast of Istanbul, Turkey, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022
© AP Photo / Emrah Gurel
Sputnik: And how do you assess the prospects of extending the grain deal after November?
Francesco Rocca: I hope of course that it will be extended. The grain deal is only a part of the bigger problem. And it is extremely important. In the end, I do hope that they will find the common ground and extend this grain deal. But I think to be clear, this deal must not be an alibi about what we are passing to Africa. This is my concern, just to be very honest.
Sputnik: Because so many of the ships don't go to Africa, right?
Francesco Rocca: No, no, it's not I'm not talking about this. I'm talking in general terms about if we have experience food insecurity is not because of the [hostilities] in Europe, it's something that happened before and unfortunately, it's happening again. The grain [deal] is vital to support millions more, but must not be an alibi to clean the responsibilities that we all have towards Africa in fixing the food insecurity once for all, which is not related to the grain deal.
Sputnik: You said you are not passionate about the grain deal?
Only for this reason, not because it’s not important. But because it could be an alibi, you know, to hide different responsibilities for what is happening in Africa, unfortunately, too often.