Syria needs humanitarian focus: Red Cross chief

Red Cross head Peter Maurer on Wednesday urged the international community to do as much to improve the humanitarian situation in Syria as it is doing to fight the chemical weapons threat in the country.

Syria needs humanitarian focus: Red Cross chief
ICRC President Peter Maurer. Photo: Junior D. Kannah/AFP

"As much as we appreciate the whole political power and energy going into the really big threat of the use of chemical weapons (in Syria) . . . we would like to see similar kinds of efforts and energy deployed in order to create circumstances in which humanitarian workers can work," the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) president told reporters in Geneva.
He said he hoped US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who are set to meet in the Swiss city on Thursday to seek a diplomatic solution to the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, would also discuss how to improve the deteriorating humanitarian situation.
"We would hope that this is also part of the discussions, not only tomorrow, but of the broader international effort in Syria," he said.
His comments came as world diplomats rushed to avert threatened US-led strikes against President Bashar al-Assad's regime over its suspected use of sarin gas against its own people last month.
Maurer hailed these efforts, but voiced concern that "the attention on the victims of the conflict . . . is a little bit lost in the public perception," adding that the situation on the ground was getting worse.
He said humanitarian workers lacked access to some of the most hard-hit parts of Syria, including the site near Damascus where Washington claims 1,400 people were killed in a chemical attack on August 21st.
"I would appreciate if the key actors who have an influence on all sides and parties in the Syrian conflict would use their influence and their channels of communication, their diplomatic and political influence . . . so that humanitarian actors on the ground can do the job they are supposed to do," he said.
Maurer pointed out that 22 Syrian Red Crescent workers had been killed since the conflict began in March 2011 — "one of the highest numbers of humanitarian workers killed carrying out their functions in an armed conflict since we started keeping statistics."
Maurer said it was particularly difficult to bring in medical aid, adding that helping wounded fighters especially was "seen by both sides as a military support of the other side and is not respected as a basic humanitarian provision."
Although the ICRC has significantly scaled up its efforts in Syria recently, the organisation could double its activities in the country and still not come close to meeting the overwhelming needs in a conflict that has already killed more than 100,000 people and forced more than two million to flee the country, he said.
"There remains a huge discrepancy between what we are able to do and what we would like to do," Maurer said.
As for whether he would meet Kerry and Lavrov in Geneva, the ICRC chief said: "That is not on the agenda now, but I'm here."

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Spain’s basic income scheme hits backlog dead-end

Three months after Spain rushed to launch a minimum basic income scheme to fight a spike in poverty due to the coronavirus pandemic, the programme is at a dead-end because of an avalanche of applications.

Spain's basic income scheme hits backlog dead-end
Red Cross volunteers bring food packages to elderly and low income people. Photo: Cesar Manso/AFP
The measure was a pledge made by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's leftwing coalition government, which took office in January, bringing together his Socialist party with far-left Podemos as the junior partner.
The scheme — approved in late May — aims to guarantee an income of 462 euros ($546) per month for an adult living alone, while for families, there would be an additional 139 euros per person, whether adult or child, up to a monthly maximum of 1,015 euros per home. It is expected to cost state coffers three billion euros ($3.5 billion) a year.
The government decided to bring forward the launch of the programme because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has hit Spain hard and devastated its economy, causing queues at food banks to swell.
Of the 750,000 applications which were filed since June 15 when the government started accepting requests, 143,000 — or 19 percent — have been analysed and 80,000 were approved, according to a social security statement issued on August 20.
'Months of waiting'
But Spain main civil servant's union, CSIF, paints a darker picture. “Nearly 99 percent of requests have not been processed,” a union spokesman, Jose Manuel Molina, told AFP.
The social security ministry has only really analysed 6,000 applications while 74,000 households that already receive financial aid were awarded the basic income automatically, he added.
For hundreds of thousands of other households, the wait is stressful. Marta Sanchez, a 42-year-old mother of two from the southern city of Seville, said she applied for the scheme on June 26 but has heard nothing since.
“That is two months of waiting already, when in theory this was a measure that was taken so no one ends up in the streets,” she added.
Sanchez lost her call centre job during Spain's virus lockdown while her husband lost his job as a driver. The couple has had to turn to the Red Cross for the first time for food.
“Thank God my mother and sister pay our water and electricity bills,” she said, adding their landlord, a relative, has turned a blind eye to the unpaid rent.
'Rushed everything'
A spokeswoman for the ministry acknowledged that the rhythm “was perhaps a bit slower than expected” but she said the government was working to “automate many procedures” so processing times should become faster from now on.
“The launch of a benefit is always difficult … and this situation is not an exception,” she added.
But Molina said this was a new situation, that was made worse by years of budget cuts to the public service which has lost 25 percent of its staff over the past decade.
“The problem is that they rushed everything, did it without training and a huge lack of staff,” he added.
The social security branch charged with the basic income scheme has only 1,500 civil servants, who also process most pension applications, Molina said.
These officials are facing an “avalanche” of requests, which already match the number of pension requests received in an entire year, he added.
About 500 temporary workers have been recruited as reinforcements but their assistance is limited because they do not have the status of civil servant, so they cannot officially approve requests for financial aid.
Demand is expected to increase. The government has said the measure was expected to benefit some 850,000 homes, affecting a total of 2.3 million people — 30 percent of whom were minors.
When the scheme was launched the government said all it would take is a simple online form, but this is a problem for many low-income families without computers and internet access, especially since the waiting time for an in-person meeting to apply is about two months, according to the CSIF union