While world leaders are busy planning additional sanctions on the Syrian government, a group of young Syrian activists are risking their lives smuggling humanitarian supplies across the border.

Young Syrian refugees in Jordan are doing what aid workers have been unable to do in the besieged country — get aid to people in hard-to-reach areas. They receive medical supplies, relief goods and communications equipment from donors, and take these to the border with the help of truck and taxi drivers. Another network of activists in Syria distributes the relief goods to families and doctors in several cities.

Ahmed Almasri, one of the activists, said donor response was “timid” at first, IRIN News reports. But eventually, donors and aid agencies started sending them supplies. In fact, he said, the group is awaiting a shipment of more than $1 million in medical equipment from one donor government. An organization, meanwhile, has promised medical supplies for an entire field hospital.

While some have commended the group’s efforts, many in the international development community have grown concerned about the so-called “new humanitarianism” as it goes against international humanitarian law.

Under IHL, providing aid to people in any country needs the government’s consent — unless the country in question is in armed conflict. But international law experts note the unrest in Syria has not yet reached “non-international armed conflict,” says IRIN. Technically, what Almasri and his colleagues are doing is “illegal.”

But Mukesh Kapila, special representative of human rights nongovernmental organization Aegis Trust, said smuggling or cross-border operations are “perfectly legitimate” if the intent is to assist people who cannot be helped in “other ways.”

“I’m quite impatient with arcane arguments on the legal side of this whole debate about humanitarian access,” Kapila said, adding that such arguments are leading the humanitarian community “nowhere at all.”

Ruba Afani, spokesperson of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Jordan, disagrees, saying aid agencies cannot ignore international law.

“Our dialogue with those who have an influence on the humanitarian situation is built on transparency to gain the trust necessary for us to reach people who need help,” Afani said. “If we don’t stick to our mandate as an institution, we won’t be credible.”

The United Nations estimates more than 9,000 have died in Syria since the uprising in March 2011. Last week, Syrian President Bashar Assad accepted U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan. To date, however, none of the plan’s proposed actions have been seen on the ground — including the longstanding call of the ICRC for a daily, two-hour humanitarian cease-fire.

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.