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NGOs make case for keeping UN border crossing into Syria open

The situation in northwest Syria is so nightmarish that some families are abandoning newborns in the streets, according to a humanitarian organization working there.
AAREF WATAD/AFP via Getty Images

Several humanitarian organizations are warning of dire repercussions if the United Nations does not to vote to keep its lone Syrian border crossing open in July.

The Syria director for the nongovernmental organization Save the Children said that it is impossible to match the UN’s cross-border humanitarian deliveries into the war-torn country.

“There is no way NGOs can scale up to replace UN cross-border deliveries,” said Sonia Khush.

The organizations Save the Children, the International Rescue Committee, CARE and Mercy Corps participated in a briefing Tuesday about the upcoming UN Security Council vote on Syria’s cross-border aid route at Bab al-Hawa between Turkey and northwest Syria.

The UN opened four border crossings into Syria in 2014 that bypassed the Syrian government, including the one at Bab al-Hawa. Russia and China have since used their veto power on the UN Security Council to close three of the crossings, leaving only Bab al-Hawa. China and especially Russia are supportive of the Syrian government in the civil war and want aid to go through Damascus. The UN has until July 10 to renew the authorization for the remaining border crossing.

Bab al-Hawa enables aid to reach northwest Syria’s Idlib province directly. The area is controlled by several rebel groups, including radical Islamists like the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Years of war with the government has created a humanitarian disaster in the country and there are two million displaced Syrians there. The majority of the displaced have had to flee their homes multiple times. June data from the International Rescue Committee found that 47% of people in northwest Syria said child labor is common where they are. Another 57% said they do not have access to running water at any time of the day.

The aid groups said that the border crossing must be renewed because the situation is already out of hand. In a particularly harrowing example, Khush noted that Save the Children has documented instances of desperate people leaving newborn babies on roadsides and even in a garbage can. Sometimes the organization is able to return the abandoned infants to their families, but they can end up in orphanages, she said.

“Institutional care is there, but we consider this is a last resort,” said Khush in response to Al-Monitor’s question on the topic. “It exposes them to long-term protection concerns, like no access documents, ID or extended family network.”

The representatives said that the Bab al-Hawa crossing is crucial for delivering aid amid this level of suffering. The Turkey country director for CARE said that nongovernmental organizations cannot replace the 1,000 trucks a month that bring UN supplies into the northwest via the border point that already have difficulties meeting the needs of Syrians.

“That is not a scale … that we as Syrian NGOs or INGOs [international organizations] can handle on our own,” said Sherine Ibrahim. “We are currently unable to meet needs in the northwest and across Syria."

Kieren Barnes, the Syria director for Mercy Corps, added that 50% of local Syrian humanitarian organizations in the northwest are totally dependent on UN funding and need the border crossing to receive it. Many are concerned they would need to shut down completely — laying off thousands of workers — if the cross-border aid route is not renewed, he said.

Su’ad Jarbawi of the International Rescue Committee pointed to the situation in northeast Syria as an example of how closing the border could hurt locals. The Yaroubia border crossing, one of the closed UN crossings, had enabled aid deliveries from Iraq to northeast Syria. She attributed the decrease in medicine at their clinics as well as the increase in illness in al-Hol camp to its closure. 

“Today northeast Syria is in dire need, and it could’ve been prevented,” said Jarabawi.

Khush also attributed the rise in deaths in al-Hol, which hosts families affiliated with the Islamic State, to the decrease in medicine reaching the northeast since Yaroubia closed.

Russia wants aid to be delivered via the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, meaning it would go from government territory to areas controlled by rebel, Kurdish and other groups.

Some humanitarian groups say this means of delivery is not reliable. Donors are reluctant to sponsor deliveries that cross from government to rebel lines. There are also security concerns in navigating areas and checkpoints covered by different groups, according to Jarabawi.

“It’s not a walk in the park,” she said.

It is unclear whether the border access will be extended next month. This week, US government officials denied claims they were negotiating on the border by using oil access in northeast Syria, which is controlled by US allies. 

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