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UK charities push for major convoy to Syria

100 ambulances filled with essential medical supplies will travel to the Turkey-Bulgaria border where they will hand over to Syria partners
Staff of the Syrian Red Crescent wait on the road in a rebel-held territory near Rashidin, west of Aleppo, on December 22, 2016 during an evacuation operation (AFP)

Several UK charities have come together to push for a major convoy of ambulances and medical supplies to Syria.

Human Aid, Hand in Hand for Syria, and Anaya aid are among a number of charities that have pooled together resources to launch Unity Convoy which will travel to Syria in April with 100 ambulances filled with essential medical supplies.

The convoy is expected to travel through Europe to the Bulgaria-Turkey border before the ambulances are handed over to the Syrian partners of the consortium, who will deliver and distribute the ambulances inside Syria.

Alim Shamas, a spokesperson for the consortium, told Middle East Eye that "the scale of the humanitarian crisis has forced many charities to come together and address the dire need for ambulances and medical equipment across the country."

This move comes weeks after rebel-held East Aleppo fell to government forces amid controversial Syrian government and Russian airstrikes that targeted a number of large hospitals and led to a global outcry.

"The world woke up with Aleppo," said Shamas.

But he pointed out that the members of the consortium lost 100 ambulances in the fight for the city, and as a result many died on improvised transportation to hospitals.

According to figures collected by Human Aid, a member of the consortium, over the space of two years seven of their ambulances have been responsible for giving life-saving treatment to 50 people injured by sniper-fire and 435 injured by bombing. They claim to have also saved the lives of 139 children aged between five and twelve.

READ: UN calls for 'immediate' access to thousands under siege in Syria

The World Health Organisation says that 11.5 million people are in urgent need of medical care in Syria.

Unity will work closely with the health authorities in Idlib, a region of Syria adjoining Turkey that has been a flash point of intense fighting between rebel forces and the government since the fall of Aleppo.

The director of health in the city will put together a list of essential supplies which they will then fundraise for.

But due to security fears, the final destination of ambulances will not be disclosed until they are actually inside Syria.

"As far as we’re concerned, every city is a potential Aleppo. There are other cities that don’t get named that are worse," said Alim Shamas.

The numbers of aid convoys to Syria have dwindled in recent years as the security situation has worsened, while the Charity Commission, the regulator of charities in the UK, has also warned of the dangers that convoys may be abused for non-charitable purposes.

The commission said in 2014 that "it continues to be alert to the potential abuse of humanitarian aid efforts through facilitating travel for individuals for other purposes particularly to conflict zones where terrorist groups are known to operate or exert control."

It also claimed that a "suspected British suicide bomber in Syria had travelled there as part of a humanitarian convoy."

That same year, the commission also began a series of investigations into charities that delivered aid to Syria and Muslim charities in general, prompting Sir Stephen Bubb, then head of the charity leaders groups AVECO to accuse the charity commission of "targetting Muslim charities in a disproportionate way."

Jilu Miah, Managing Director of Human Aid UK, a charity that comes under the umbrella of Unity, said that Unity would be complying with "all charity commission regulations" and that aid workers will be "heavily vetted."

He added that aid workers will not be going into Syria or Turkey but will return to the UK from Bulgaria on "pre-booked tickets."

Faddy Sahloul, CEO of Hand in Hand for Syria, the charity that will coordinate the handover of ambulances into Syria, said to MEE: 

“The plight of the Syrian people means they are constantly in need of ambulances and medical supplies. If the countries of the world cannot unite to resolve the greater problem, I believe the charities that make up Unity Convoy can unite to address this basic need, and send a clear message to the people of Syria – the world is with you.”

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