The Struggle of Syrian NGOs

When the Syrian refugee crisis hit European shores in 2015 and 2016, the United Nations called on the conflict to cease so that aid and assistance could be delivered to Syria. Nearly three years later, the same calls echo, seemingly, to no avail. On February 6th, senior UN officials expressed concern over military operations that prevented safe evacuations and the distribution of aid to civilian populaces. Advocacy groups, like NGOs attempting to alleviate suffering in Syria, have good intentions but remain limited by the severity of the conflict.

Oxfam staff walk towards an informal refugee settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Photo: Melanie Gallant/Oxfam
NGOs have the capacity and have shown demonstrated success in bettering the conditions of Syrians on the ground. Mercy Corps has provided food, blankets, mattresses, and infant care supplies for families in need. In addition, Mercy Corps actively works to rebuild institutions such as creating playgrounds, sports fields, and other spaces for children to play and reintegrate back into normalcy. Oxfam, another NGO, works actively to support and aid refugees in neighboring countries of Jordan and Lebanon. Not only does Oxfam deliver necessities but also works to provide information and access to legal and medical services. Although NGOs such as Mercy Corps and Oxfam have actively improved the lives of Syrians in the crisis, they still remain severely restricted by factors outside of their control. 

While NGOs are able to mitigate the conflict by providing much needed aid, the Syrian crisis has only revealed how constrained they are in their abilities to deliver. For one, host governments have severely limited the ability of international NGOs and the international community to act properly. For instance, when NGOs and the UN attempted to deliver aid within Syria, they have often relied on the Syrian government to direct aid to its particular territories. However, this leaves the hundreds of thousands of Syrians in rebel territory without necessary food, water, and medicine. In protest to the reliance on the Syrian government which has committed its share of horrific human rights attacks against Syrian citizens, NGOs have banded together in protest. 73 NGOs wrote a letter to the UN objecting the deference the UN has displayed to Assad. They advocated for a transparent investigation into UN performance and a critical change to the process of delivering aid. Together, these 73 NGOs have provided “humanitarian assistance to over 7 million Syrians…and others in the 3 neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey in all humanitarian sectors, health, education, food security, shelter, wash, protection, livelihood, and many others.” Yet, these NGOs still recognize that the possibility of changed UN policy is highly unlikely and mostly improbable. Regardless of UN condemnations and the pleas of NGO groups, the Syrian government will not change its stance toward NGOs and will continue wielding its influence to limit the effectiveness of those groups.

MSF worker helps Syrian child facing aftermath of Syrian war that has left civilians without necessary healthcare and social services Photo: Doctors Without Borders
Even in countries that host a large number of Syrian refugees, such as Turkey, NGOs are limited. Following the failed coup attempt in July of 2016, President Erdogan of Turkey has made numerous measures to distance Turkish policy from the West and United States. In regards to the Syrian crisis, Erdogan has cracked down on international non-governmental organizations, detaining workers from foreign relief agencies. US-based groups such as Mercy Corps and International Medical Corps were closed in March and April of last year, respectively. When NGOs are shuttered from operating, those who depend on their help are sidelined and left helpless. 

Aside from government intervention that limits of prevents the operation of NGOs, there are logistical issues that must also be kept in mind. NGOs are also continually limited by the lack of funding they receive from both the international community and the United States. Even with enough funding, NGOs have other additional issues they face. The crisis itself is large, spanning beyond just Syria, making NGOs’ task a lot more difficult when catering services to various populations. Even within Syria, the differing location of communities in need poses a challenge for NGOs. During the winter, cold weather poses an additional problem as winter kits that have mattresses, clothing, and protective shelter must be distributed in a timely manner. Internally, within individual NGOs, there is ongoing debate over the prioritization of needs in Syria. Specifically, the debate lies over whether each NGO project is an “emergency response measure” or a “long-term development project”. In essence, NGOs struggle over fulfilling short term needs that enable Syrians to survive day by day and developing long term infrastructure that allows Syrians to thrive for the weeks, months, and years to come.

Katherine Gan is a T’21 Undergraduate and a 17′-18′ Human Rights Scholar at the Institute.

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