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Get your permits in order: humanitarian relief in Syria and Turkey

In March this year, the Turkish Government revoked the licence of US NGO Mercy Corps, forcing it to close its Turkey-based operations delivering aid to Syria. Mercy Corps had been working in-country since 2012 and by 2016, was providing relief to 350,000–500,000 people in Syria each month, as well as assisting Syrian refugees in Turkey. Ten staff members from Danish NGO DanChurchAid were also arrested in March and five foreigners in the group were subsequently deported due to work permit discrepancies.

Turkish authorities, again citing work permit issues, also deported a number of international staff in April from the US-based International Medical Corp. Government officials have also stepped up their inspections of foreign NGOs operating in southern Turkey. In March, a number of media outlets reported on a leaked memo from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) that stated Turkey’s Interior Ministry was planning to make all foreign NGOs re-register—a move that UNOCHA noted would enable the government to choose which NGOs would stay.

While Turkish officials have argued they are simply enforcing pre-Syrian war protocols that were relaxed to enable a more flexible response to the crisis, some analysts see these recent actions as reflecting the Erdogan Government’s increasingly negative attitude towards the West. Turkish suspicions about foreign activity are not new and the government has a long tradition of fiercely protecting its sovereignty; however, in light of the Erdogan Government’s increased anti-Western rhetoric, many groups have concerns about the future of their Turkey-based operations. Fuelling this concern are a number of local media reports promoting the idea—in no uncertain terms—that international aid groups are spying, or assisting groups Turkey considers to be terrorists. US support for the Syrian Kurds, now extended to the overt supply of arms, is likely to further reinforce these perceptions.

International NGOs are a critical node in the delivery of aid into Syria and any disruption to their operations will severely affect services on the ground. While local Syrian and Turkish NGOs undertake most of the actual delivery of aid into country, international groups are the conduit for donor funding, given many local NGOs do not have accountability mechanisms in place that meet donor standards.

Turkey: a critical link in the aid chain

In 2016, 58 international NGOs and 469 Syrian or Turkish NGOs sent humanitarian aid from Turkey into Syria, reaching around a million people a month, according to UN reporting. Two of the primary conduits into Syria for this aid, the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam border crossings indicated on the map below (Figure 1), are in Turkey. Other options for access into Syria are still limited and constantly change due to the ongoing war. Turkey also does not allow international aid agencies access to the Kurdish areas or the Turkish-controlled zone between Jarabulus and Afrin, although it does allow a number of Turkish NGOs to operate. According to UN reporting, the Kobane border crossing—which provides direct access into the two main Kurdish cantons—has also remained closed to humanitarian staff and aid shipments since early February 2016. As such, the supply line from those other Turkish entrance points remains critical for Syrians in the north of the country—13.5 million people are assessed to still need assistance and 4.6 million of this number are in besieged or hard-to-reach areas.

Syria—people in need and border crossings

Figure 1. Syria—people in need and border crossings (Source: UN Relief web)

Australian Aid

The Australian Government has pledged $220 million over three years to Syria, with the funding plan laid out in three components. The first is humanitarian assistance and protection inside Syria, which is partly administered via Turkey, although it is difficult to determine what proportion of Australian aid this is. The other components support refugees and local resilience in Jordan and Lebanon and are where the bulk of Australia’s funding goes. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) notes in its Syria Crisis Package Design Brief that under component one, for which yearly allocations are given below in Figure 2, funding will be channelled through the World Food Programme (WFP), UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) appeals, and international humanitarian organisations. It is this aid, especially from the WFP, that is generally delivered from Turkey. So, changing conditions in the country could also affect Australia’s assistance which is channelled through such international and locally-based organisations. DFAT specifically noted thatsupporting a partner with a cross-border component to its operations is both politically important and will broaden the reach of our assistance’.

Australian contributions

Figure 2. Australian contributions (Source: Syria crisis: humanitarian package and resilience package: design, DFAT, Australian Aid, February 2017)

The Turkish Government’s current approach to international NGOs raises some questions about Australia’s possible partners in the region—international and local NGOs alike—and how they are approaching what appears to be an increasingly difficult relationship with the Turkish Government. An ongoing US  Government investigation into fraud and corruption by local NGOs, which has recently suspended payments to a number of NGOs colluding with Turkish suppliers, is only likely to create more problems for ongoing  Syrian relief operations.

Working with the Turkish Government will remain critical to the ability of INGOs to facilitate international donor support to Syrians in need (including from governments), despite what may be a more complex operating environment. However, local reports suggest knowing how to engage with and develop messaging for Turkish audiences has been largely ignored or not prioritised by INGOs operating in the region. Turkey’s perception that its efforts to deal with the crisis—which have effectively dwarfed those of most international states—have gone unrecognised by the international community, is just one such example.