What is the role of donations in helping Syria’s earthquake victims?

An UN-aid truck loaded with food baskets at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in Idlib - February 10, 2023 (Enab Baladi / Mohammad Nasan Dabel)

An UN-aid truck loaded with food baskets at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in Idlib - February 10, 2023 (Enab Baladi / Mohammad Nasan Dabel)


Enab Baladi – Muhammed Fansa

Large-scale donation campaigns have been active in the wake of the earthquake that struck Syria, targeting, in particular, the northwest, where civil society NGOs are active.

At a time when efforts and needs were being directed to save those trapped in the rubble, the fate of these donations was unclear, and in what area they would help the victims, while no in-kind aid had entered northwestern Syria until the fifth day of the earthquake, nor was it commensurate with the magnitude of the needs.

Donations that do not contribute to civil protection

The concept of civil protection (civil defense) is to protect society and private and public property from both natural and human disasters or to reduce the risk resulting therefrom, using various protection tools. In the case of northwestern Syria, the Syria Civil Defense organization (SCD, White Helmets) teams are assuming this role.

Academic Bassem Hatahet, a specialist in the strategic management of civil society organizations, told Enab Baladi that, at a time of natural disasters falling within the framework of civil protection in international humanitarian law, there exists a special system different from natural situations, which is not present within local civil society organizations.

Hatahet divided civil protection in times of disasters into two parts, the first being the protection of victims who were “directly harmed.” The funds currently raised from voluntary donations do not contribute to the victims’ rescue but rather to the provision of food or medical assistance or tents as shelters for those affected by the earthquake.

The second part, which is “the repercussions of direct harm,” concerns the post-damage period, such as the fate of victims or demolished buildings. This part also does not exist within the system of work of local civil society organizations, according to Hatahet.

The actual aid requested by the SCD had not yet entered the region, while food and health aid collected through voluntary donations would be useful in the coming days in a situation similar to the distribution of aid to displaced persons prior to the earthquake, Hatahet pointed out.

On the fourth day of the earthquake, the first pre-scheduled UN convoy entered northwestern Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, carrying relief and medical aid.

On the fifth day, a number of relief trucks entered northern Syria through the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salama border crossings with Turkey, which included relief and food items provided by the United Nations and other relief organizations such as Turkish charities, the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), and the Qatar Red Crescent.

This aid is the first of its kind that entered the opposition-held northwestern Syria as an international response to the earthquake after linking its delay for more than four days to “logistical” reasons and conditions.

Donations raised in the Iraqi city of Erbil for those affected by the earthquake in Syria and Turkey - February 8, 2023 (Kurdistan 24)

Donations raised in the Iraqi city of Erbil for those affected by the earthquake in Syria and Turkey – February 8, 2023 (Kurdistan 24)

Lack of coordination

Calls and links have been spread on social media by many humanitarian and relief organizations to donate to support the earthquake victims independently and separately between Turkey and abroad, including those issued by organizations with teams working in northwestern Syria.

Specialist in the strategic management of civil society organizations (CSOs), Bassem Hatahet, criticized the lack of coordination between CSOs in the light of the existence of such a disaster and the significant needs associated with it, and the absence of a higher relief body acting in this role alongside the Syria Civil Defense (SCD).

Coordination between organizations or the presence of a higher relief body ensures the distribution of voluntary donations in accordance with the most important needs, such as securing mechanisms and rescue-assisting equipment such as tapping devices and cameras, securing places to house those affected and, at a later stage, establishing committees to assess damages.

For instance, Hatahet noted the gravity of the situation of earthquake-affected dams, whose collapse could cause other disasters.

The village of al-Talul witnessed a displacement movement as a result of the water demolishing earthen berms that were equipped to prevent the flooding of the Asi (Orontes) River, as the river level rose to flood the neighboring farmlands and the water entered houses in the said village.

The Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation in the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), Muhammad al-Ahmad, attributed the rise in the river water levels to the opening of the al-Rastan Dam by the Syrian regime, in addition to the collapse of the concrete dam between Antakya and Reyhanli in Turkey.

Hatahet highlighted the importance of reaching an agreement with UN bodies to enter the north of Syria instead of raising donations, stating that the mechanism for the entry of aid to the region is a periodic UN-accredited mechanism. Thus, if an agreement is reached with these bodies to allow the entry of civil society organizations, the latter can then receive necessary United Nations support that is difficult for voluntary contributions to collect, such as heavy machinery and the disbursement of relief-oriented donations.

On February 10, a group of senior international lawyers, law experts, and former judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a letter explaining that the continued passage of cross-border assistance to Syria was legal without the UN Security Council’s authorization.

The said letter stated that “the Syrian conflict is governed by Common Article III to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which also represents customary international law, and allows access negotiations to take place between impartial humanitarian bodies and all “Parties to the conflict,” including those outside of the Government” in the event of non-international armed conflicts.

The letter also deemed the “refusal to permit cross-border aid unlawful,” “where it is arbitrary, such as where that refusal breaches international law,” and that NGOs can continue to provide cross-border assistance under the relevant rules of public international law.

Donation hardships

Opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and the countryside of Aleppo are located within a landlocked area with no maritime or aerial access. After the earthquake at dawn last Monday, February 6, all land crossings from the Turkish side were closed. The following day, the crossings’ management confirmed that they were open to relief and humanitarian movement.

Last Friday, the Syria Civil Defense (SCD) criticized the absence of international aid and the international community’s indifference to the humanitarian appeals it had launched during the response period.

The SCD added that the teams had exhausted all available capacities in search and rescue operations within five days, owing to the absence of an international response to SCD-launched appeals.

Specialist in the management of civil society organizations, Bassem Hatahet, reported that 60 to 70% of cadres of civil society organizations in southern Turkey and inside Syria had been damaged by the earthquake, which meant that there were “substantial amounts of deductions from donations to repair these damages.” He added that during the first four days after the earthquake, remittances from Turkey into Syria were “stalled.”

Hatahet highlighted the importance of organizations’ financial transparency in the event of disasters in order for their work to be assessable on the ground, which most local organizations did not have.

According to Hatahet, one of the most important obstacles preventing safe people from contributing to earthquake victims is the lack of a monitoring body to assure people that the transferee has real and actionable aid programs.

The second obstacle is the chaos associated with international aid and the pressure of humanitarian actors to allow aid to flow into regime-held areas, which entitles it to manage the subject of donations, bearing in mind the Syrian regime’s history of stealing aid.

Academic Bassem Hatahet believes that a higher relief body must be established as soon as possible to oversee the effects of the earthquake and the requirements for early recovery so that it may be accredited by international bodies without the regime’s tendency to loot aid in light of many Arab countries sending aid and rescue teams to regime-controlled areas.

European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, announced on Wednesday that the EU plans to host a donors’ conference early in March in Brussels to raise international aid for Syria and Turkey after the devastating earthquake.

Northwestern regions of Syria suffer from deteriorating living and economic conditions, with the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance (before the devastating earthquake) rising to 14.6 million, an increase of 1.2 million compared to last year. This figure is expected to reach 15.3 million people in the current year.

The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance in northwestern Syria in 2022 also reached about 4.6 million, including 3.3 million who are food insecure and 2,9 million IDPs, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).



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