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U.N. Refugee Agency Deputy On The Humanitarian Crisis In Syria

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Of all the humanitarian crises created by the war in Syria, the current one is the worst. The Syrian government, backed by Russia, is bombing Idlib, the last rebel-held province in the country. The U.N. says these attacks are indiscriminately targeting civilians, and it's led to the largest exodus yet - about a million refugees fleeing toward the Turkish border, which Turkey has sealed.

Kelly Clements is the deputy high commissioner of the U.N.'s Refugee Agency. She's in Washington for meetings on this crisis and joins us now in the studio.

Welcome.

KELLY CLEMENTS: Thank you very much, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What is the situation in Idlib province right now?

CLEMENTS: Well, quite simply, it is a large-scale humanitarian catastrophe. Since the beginning of December, we've seen, as you mentioned, about 960,000 people - and when I say people, these are men, mostly women and children - and very small children, babies - that are on the move. They're scattered. They're trying to find some safety, and they're quite literally under attack.

SHAPIRO: It is hard to picture a million refugees on the move all at once. What are the conditions that they're living in?

CLEMENTS: The conditions - it's rubble. It is, you know, shelter that is haphazard. It's out in the open, in many cases, because some don't have places that they can go. And these are people that are - obviously, some in their original homes but many who have been displaced not once, twice - three times...

SHAPIRO: Because many...

CLEMENTS: ...In the country.

SHAPIRO: ...Fled to Idlib...

CLEMENTS: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Province, and now they're fleeing from Idlib province.

CLEMENTS: Exactly. Exactly, so they're heartbreaking stories. And for us in the United Nations and the heroic work of the local relief actors on the ground, these stories - we want to access. We want to bring in more relief. And it's quite difficult. Access is tremendously difficult to achieve.

SHAPIRO: If the bombing did stop today, how much of a difference would it make? I was looking at satellite images of Idlib that suggest there's not much of a city for people to return to.

CLEMENTS: It's going to take a whole lot of effort in terms of rebuilding, but people are resilient. And you see right now a refugee crisis with 5.6 million Syrians that have stayed mostly in neighboring countries - countries that have been generous in terms of their support. But they're staying close to Syria because they want to return. They want to rebuild.

You see the same thing within the country of Syria. And this is why people continue to try to move - one, to find safety in places like Idlib. But also, when it's reasonably secure, they want to go back, and they want to rebuild their lives.

So it will take a lot of assistance, a lot of effort on the part of many, many partners and a whole lot of financial support from the international community. But first, we need an end to the fighting. We need to - end to the suffering of people.

SHAPIRO: American officials visiting the Turkish-Syrian border have promised more than a hundred million dollars in aid to the U.N. refugee program. How much of a difference is that likely to make?

CLEMENTS: Well, the U.S., of course, has been a very strong partner in this in terms of financial support to the U.N. Refugee Agency. It's absolutely critical. But we actually need even more assistance in terms of being able to ramp up the aid that we're providing inside Syria and the aid that we're providing to the generous neighboring hosts.

To put this into perspective, Ari, just on February 24, we issued as U.N. a response - rapid response plan for the Northwest Syria portion, which is half a billion dollars. Add that to the $2 billion in requirements inside Syria that we have needed to support in terms of ongoing protection and lifesaving assistance.

This, to date, is only 9% funded by the international community, so it's absolutely critical that we see not just the U.S. but many other governments step up and be able to support the efforts of these agencies that are trying to aid Syrians in great distress.

SHAPIRO: You're based in Geneva, but you're in Washington for meetings about this crisis.

CLEMENTS: Indeed.

SHAPIRO: What's your message to the people that you're meeting with today?

CLEMENTS: Trying to bring some picture of the stories of people that we've talked to on the ground - the desperation, the calls for the fighting, for the conflict to stop. You know, this...

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us one of those stories?

CLEMENTS: This - well, you know, a mother in terms of her babies, where she's been displaced three times in terms of her movements and trying to get to a place where she can just keep her kids warm. This sort of a story is not unusual and not unique. Now, these are people that we're able to talk to. But without access, there are many, many that we're not able to talk to.

SHAPIRO: Kelly Clements is the Deputy High Commissioner for the U.N.'s Refugee Agency.

Thank you for joining us.

CLEMENTS: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.