UN shuttering of Syria crossings creates new burden for local NGOs, millions of civilians

Trucks headed to Syria and loaded with humanitarian aid for displaced families are seen at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fish-Khabur, Iraq, on Oct. 15, 2019. Photo by: REUTERS / Ari Jalal

UNITED NATIONS — The recent U.N. Security Council elimination of two major border crossings into Syria places new pressure on local aid organizations to reach millions of civilians.

“Many of the relief workers had to flee because of the invasion, and it was a really big change in the political landscape,” said Sahar Atrache, senior advocate for the Middle East at Refugees International. “The local NGOs already lack the capacity and the funding, and they are at risk themselves because of the political context. The coordination through the U.N., despite many flaws, was an important mechanism,” she told Devex.

“There is no other way to channel all these supplies, which are lifesaving medical and trauma kits, so a real alternative is the huge challenge. What alternative is there to channel this aid?” Atrache said.

The Security Council voted late Friday evening to extend an authorization mandate that allows for U.N. cross-border aid delivery into Syria. But it authorized only the two existing border crossings in Turkey, eliminating the Jaber-Naseeb crossing into Jordan and the Al Yarubiyah crossing into Iraq. It also reduced the duration of the agreement from 12 to six months.

“Local NGOs already lack the capacity and the funding, and they are at risk themselves because of the political context. The coordination through the U.N. … was an important mechanism.”

— Sahar Atrache, senior advocate for the Middle East, Refugees International

The new limits on border crossings could potentially cut off a lifeline of aid to about 4 million people in northern Syria who depend on U.N. cross-border humanitarian assistance, said Mark Lowcock, U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.

The Al Yarubiyah crossing between Syria and Iraq has been used to deliver health care services and supplies to 1.4 million people, with “no viable alternative to this crossing point,” Belgian U.N. Ambassador Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve told the Security Council before the contentious vote. In December, the council failed to extend the border operation after Russia and China vetoed a draft resolution that would have allowed for three open border points.

“If an alternative is not found, major medical facilities will be impacted because they do not have supplies and it is impossible to get the supplies through Damascus. It will have a major impact on the civilian populations in the Northeast, who are already trying to recover from the Turkish incursion that happened in October,” Atrache said.

The now-extended Security Council resolution, which dates back to 2014, only impacts U.N.-led assistance. All aid that is usually coordinated and led by the U.N. will stop, Atrache said. But even humanitarian organizations that do not operate through the U.N. will feel the loss of the border crossings, as the “heavy burden” of funding and logistics will again fall to them, according to Atrache.

Escalating hostilities in northwestern Syria have displaced more than 312,000 people since the beginning of December alone.

“Shifting it from U.N-led to other organizations is going to be a challenge. We are talking about local organizations that do not have the resources,” Atrache said. “A lot of the donors sometimes prefer to go through the U.N. because, for compliance and liability issues, it is easier. The question is whether it is possible to shift the operations and go through local organizations now.”

The International Rescue Committee is one of the few international organizations still operating in northeastern Syria. Médecins Sans Frontières and Save the Children evacuated staff in October following the abrupt withdrawal of American troops from the Kurdish-controlled region and the subsequent Turkish invasion.

IRC President and CEO David Miliband said in a media statement late last week that there is “no humanitarian justification” for closing border crossings in Syria. The removal of the posts creates the risk of a “swift and dangerous humanitarian impact,” according to Miliband.

“The removal of the Yaroubiya crossing will immediately halt critical medical supplies and disrupt at least half of the healthcare response in northeast Syria. Mothers will go without medical supplies in the delivery of their babies. Health facilities will go without trauma kits. Supply chains inside Syria simply cannot fill the gaps,” Miliband said.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.