(Corrects appeal figure in penultimate para to $180 mln from $189 mln after clarification by OCHA)
By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, July 16 (Reuters) - Syria is refusing to grant visas to Western aid workers but the United Nations is trying to overcome its objections so as to expand its humanitarian operation in the face of growing needs, a senior U.N. aid official said on Monday.
The world body currently deploys 60 expatriates in Syria, where some 1.5 million people are deemed in need of assistance amid escalating violence, he said.
“We have a number of visas pending for international staff from a number of Western countries - the United States, Canada, the U.K., France and one or two more - that are refused their visas because of their nationalities,” John Ging told reporters after chairing the Fourth Syrian Humanitarian Forum.
“That is something we object to very strongly and are working with the Syrian government to overcome,” he said after the closed-door talks in Geneva attended by Syria’s envoy Faysal Khabbaz Hamoui.
U.N. officials were taking up the visa issue “on a daily basis” with Syrian authorities, who otherwise have been upholding an agreement reached in early June for expanding the U.N. aid operation, he said.
Ging also said Syria’s wheat harvest would fall by more than 700,000 tonnes this year, citing the result of a survey carried out by two U.N. agencies, the World Food Programme (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), due to be issued next week.
Syria consumes 4 million to 5 million tonnes of wheat a year but harvests over the last in last six years have fallen short of that, forcing it to import wheat.
“That is something we need to be prepared to cope with because there will be less wheat on the market,” Ging told Reuters.
The WFP - whose food rations are distributed by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent - aims to feed 850,000 people in Syria in July, up from 500,000 in June, he said.
“The principal challenge is insecurity on the ground and also a shortage in funding,” Ging said.
Two separate U.N. appeals, $180 million for humanitarian needs inside Syria and $193 million to help Syrian refugees who have fled abroad are only 20 percent funded, he said.
Some 112,000 Syrian refugees have now registered with the U.N. refugee agency in four countries - Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq, UNHCR official Panos Moumtzis told reporters. (Additional reporting by Khaled Oweis; Editing by Kevin Liffey)