Access to All Syrians Must Be at the Heart of All Syria Policy
February 23, 2021
The Path Forward is a CSIS Humanitarian Agenda series of reflections from humanitarian organizations on the challenges in food security, disrupted health systems, humanitarian access, civilian protection, and, ultimately, recovery for the Syrian people.
Amid Syria’s challenging humanitarian context, obstacles in accessing those in need and delivering principled humanitarian aid continue to multiply. Access impediments vary from active violence that prevents humanitarian workers from safely entering an area to bureaucratic hurdles imposed by local authorities that delay the delivery of aid to lack of basic services because many facilities were destroyed during the conflict. Therefore, swift action is needed to address the disparity between access and the ongoing and unprecedented rise in people’s needs.
The decade-long conflict has produced staggering humanitarian needs, despite a substantial international response. In 2020, with the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbating suffering, Syrians had to survive another attack on their livelihoods, forcing them to abandon necessities made unobtainable or unaffordable. Hameed, a humanitarian aid worker in Syria, described the current environment: “Now in Syria, we have almost all nations fighting. It’s like a fancy United Nations headquarter. The difference is that in New York, they denounce and condemn, but here states are using the language of weapons and blood, while Syrians in all their diversity are paying the price.” While needs vary across the country, policies that enable humanitarian access are key to delivering life-saving assistance.
Displaced in northeast Syria, Farah (16) has been deprived of her education because the nearest school is 15 kilometers away. She also has no formal identification which she needs to leave the camp. In order for her to apply for an ID, however, she must return to her birthplace, Homs—a journey that will put her life at risk as she crosses military checkpoints and combat lines.
Approximately 6.8 million Syrians need access to education, with 2.5 million children out of school. Because many schools were destroyed in the conflict, they are often out of reach of areas of displacement. Many children trek long distances to reach education facilities, exposing them to protection risks along the way. Moreover, millions of displaced Syrians lost their civil documentation during displacement or had it confiscated by local authorities. Children born in displacement oftentimes do not have any form of identification or documentation proving their existence. Without an ID, Syrians face restrictions on the freedom of movement and are deprived of access to basic services such as education and healthcare.
Adapting services to make them more accessible, such as establishing emergency education facilities and mobile civil registries, can alleviate these needs but requires additional resources and the political will of authorities to prioritize displaced Syrians’ access to these basic services.
In northwest Syria, displaced Syrians are often caught between active violence, harsh weather conditions, and limited access to essential goods. Insecurity is the main access impediment. There, displaced families are stuck in a dangerous cycle where they cannot pursue sustainable solutions. Building durable infrastructure in northwest Syria is not a prioritized investment because it will likely get destroyed in the violence. At the same time, without durable structures, Syrians will remain living in makeshift shelters that offer no protection from harsh weather. Even worse, this year, over 80,000 displaced people are sleeping in the open or under trees with no shelter. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) predicts thousands may perish from the cold unless they can shelter in safe spaces.
Five years ago, Abou Omar, together with his family of 12, fled rural Hama to Idlib, where they share two tents in a camp. With no access to fuel, there is no heat—the tents are frigid shells during the winter. When rain falls in heavy downpours, the tents flood, destroying the only place they have to keep warm. Lack of jobs and overall poor economic conditions prevent them from earning an income to provide enough food for their family. The food basket that is provided is simply not enough. Abou Omar’s personal danger is further increased because he has diabetes and lacks access to insulin. Conditions in northwest Syria are plagued by a categorical lack of access to vital basic services.
To increase access to Syrians in these hard-to-reach areas, the hostilities must be halted, and all access points opened. The renewal of UN Security Council Resolution 2533 that allows cross-border access into northwest Syria is vital, in addition to strengthening all access modalities across Syria (both cross-border and crossline).
An additional layer of access impediments includes the bureaucratic challenges that further increase Syrians’ precarious positions and heighten their vulnerability. Humanitarian agencies are too familiar with the challenges imposed in carrying out principled humanitarian assistance. Moreover, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic worsened living conditions with the imposition of curfews and other movement restrictions.
In Al Quneitra governorate, most of the local population relies on day labor jobs to survive. However, with the movement restrictions, many families experienced significant financial losses and, in turn, became more reliant on assistance. Humanitarian groups, including the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), have faced access constraints because of restrictions imposed on the movement of aid workers. NRC’s team, located in Damascus, is 14 kilometers away from Jdaidet al-Fadl town in Al Quneitra governorate, normally a mere 21 minutes by car. Instead, gaining access to this town took 37 days.
Once NRC was able to reach the town, the team met Mohammad, the only breadwinner for a family of eleven. As a furniture painter, he works up to fourteen hours a day to earn enough to scrape by. During the Covid-19 lockdown, Mohammad and his family suffered immensely due to loss of income. “During the curfew, [day laborers] like myself were out of work. We found ourselves trapped in poverty and drastic economic hardships.” He continued, “Sharing bread with neighbors and borrowing money from relatives were the only available coping mechanisms [during] these challenging times.” The curfew not only led to economic hardships but also to malnutrition, placing his family in further peril.
In cases when humanitarian access is officially granted in Syria, administrative burdens transform what should be a swift and unimpeded process to deliver aid into a lengthy series of paper filing and waiting for approvals. Reaching Syria’s most vulnerable requires unfettered access. In order to deliver principled humanitarian assistance, aid organizations must be allowed to move freely with minimal interference in their operations. Donors and humanitarian actors must join efforts to collectively push back against interference in aid delivery to facilitate unimpeded access to all Syrians.
When access is hindered, Syrians are the ones who fall in these gaps and suffer the most as they grow more reliant on humanitarian assistance. In the tenth year of the crisis, Syrians continue to need assistance because the scale, severity, and complexity of their needs remain extensive. Their needs must be the guiding compass and main driver for all related parties to take action that respects humanitarian principles to ensure unimpeded access and safeguards the humanitarian space.
Basma Alloush is a policy and advocacy adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Washington D.C. Oula Mashfj is a media and communications assistant with NRC in Damascus, Syria.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.