In a typical scenario in today’s humanitarian aid, expatriate managers coordinate operations from safe areas, while local partners within conflict zones deliver actual aid to beneficiaries. In Syria, local humanitarians have repeatedly, and in vain, asked for help from the organizations they had worked for.
President Donald Trump’s announcement of the US troops repositioning within Northeastern Syria, and the subsequent Turkish military operation targeting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the northeast, is often referred to in the media as a betrayal of Kurdish allies by Western powers.
Indeed, since 2014, the SDF, a reportedly joint Kurdish and Arab militia, has fought alongside the US against the Islamic State (ISIS). The prematurely publicized “defeat” of ISIS, perceived as essential to global security, came at the price of tens of thousands of lost lives among SDF members.
Yet such acts of betrayal from the “international community” towards not only Syrian combatants, but also activists, civil society, humanitarians and common citizens have characterized the conflict for years. Many Syrians have worked alongside EU and US allies – the latter including military forces, governments, international humanitarian agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and even private companies.
Many Syrians have worked alongside EU and US allies.
Once the geopolitical situation changed, they were often left behind in conditions of utter danger and extreme precarity. In most cases, their stories never made it to international media. In this post, we draw on our current research to fill this gap.
In August 2019, thanks to funding from the Academy of Finland and the University of Helsinki, we started working on a qualitative research project on humanitarian remote management and local labor in the Syrian conflict and displacement.
The Demise of Localization, the Rise of Remoteness
The humanitarian community has discussed for years the need to transfer the control of humanitarian coordination and resources to local organizations – a debate known as “localization agenda”.
Yet to date, most professionals in the field would agree that localization has failed: funding and decision-making remain in the hands of international organizations and NGOs whose headquarters are located far from the areas affected by humanitarian crises.
What this debate has often neglected to acknowledge, however, is that while policy decisions and the management of resources are far from being localized, most of the workers dealing with difficult tasks on the ground are already recruited locally.
While policy decisions and the management of resources are far from being localized, most of the workers dealing with difficult tasks on the ground are already recruited locally.
In a typical scenario in today’s humanitarian aid, expatriate managers coordinate operations from safe areas, while local partners within conflict zones deliver actual aid to beneficiaries – from medical supplies to food parcels and cash assistance. The risks they face to get their job done range from aerial bombings to food shortages and repeated exposure to severe psychological trauma. Yet their salaries are much lower than Western aid workers, and their working conditions incomparably more difficult.
The Syrian conflict is often held as the crisis in which the use of remote management in humanitarian aid was mainstreamed, hence our choice to focus on it.
The humanitarians we spoke to for our research worked for small to medium-sized Syrian aid organizations, acting as implementing partners for US and EU-based international NGOs, on programs funded by prominent Western agencies such as USAID, DFID and ECHO.
They recalled years spent working as much as 15 hours per day, remaining available to their managers abroad 24/7 through messaging outlets such as WhatsApp and Skype.
Their motivations varied from a sense of duty and solidarity towards their war-torn community, to the impossibility of finding another job in a local economy shattered by armed conflict.
(Dis)enfranchising the (Im)mobile
Some of the workers we interviewed were based in areas such as Dara’a (commonly known as the Cradle of the Revolution), the southern province held by opposition groups until summer 2018, when an offensive co-led by the Governments of Syria and Russia, breaching an internationally brokered de-escalation agreement which Russia was a co-negotiator of, led to its fall under president Bashar al Assad’s government control.
As the province fell back under government control, and Western allies withdrew funding and backing, its people also voiced their grievances about betrayal by the international community. Their plea, however, encountered limited international solidarity.
Among them were local humanitarians who repeatedly, and in vain, asked for help from the organizations they had worked for. Once the Syrian army retook control of Dara’a, these workers were left with two equally dangerous options: stay in the area and “reconcile”, pledging renewed allegiance to the Syrian government, or flee to opposition held areas in northwestern Syria.
Those who decided to stay in so-called “reconciled” areas faced well-documented threats of harassment and arbitrary arrest by the authorities, due to their previous work with organizations funded by powers hostile to the government.
Those who decided to leave, on the other hand, found themselves in areas of the country where risks and needs are unsurmountable to include recurrent reporting of targeting humanitarian and health facilities, and where the use of a scorched earth strategy, as commonly described by media outlets in the area, is commonplace.
From there, the only small chance to reach safety for themselves and their families was being smuggled into Turkey, an option that required cash, and exposure to the risk of violent assault by Turkish border guards.
In fact, of the most interesting aspects emerging from our current, and previous research, is precisely the role of mobility in making the lives and expertise of humanitarians valued and safe, or disregarded and disposable.
Lack of access to mobility is a result of restrictive international migration regimes, but also established patterns of underemployment and deskilling, through which the aid industry reproduces, rather than challenges, global inequalities.
Expatriate managers in international humanitarian organizations, just as in the private sector, are often habitual jet setters, used to being relocated to working stations across the world, and leading transnational personal lives. Local workers, on the other hand, even when highly skilled and having years of experience in the sector, are much less likely to get to move or travel for work.
This lack of access to mobility is a result of restrictive international migration regimes, but also established patterns of underemployment and deskilling, through which the aid industry reproduces, rather than challenges, global inequalities. As one of the workers we interviewed put it when describing the lack of chances for career advancement and international mobility he had experienced: “Once a local, always a local”.
Denied access to mobility acts not only to prevent professional development, it also inscribes intersecting inequalities onto one’s immobile body. It reinforces global hierarchies that classify people on the basis of where they were born. In other words, the immobility and invisibility of Syrian aid workers act as a mechanism of racialization.
The EU Journey
Among those we interviewed, the only aid worker who made it to an EU country had to go through complex and lengthy asylum procedures, involving further years of restricted mobility.
Irregular migration outside of Syria and dangerous journeys to reach asylum destinations in the EU are often the only option available to professionals with significant skills, who have worked for the most vulnerable members of their societies with impassioned dedication, and provided a fundamental service to the international humanitarian community.
Former Syrian aid workers are likely to struggle even more to have their rights to protection acknowledged.
As the EU-Turkey statement on refugees vacillates before president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan‘s plans for deporting refugees back to Syria, and access to asylum in the EU is made difficult by policies such as the hotspot approach, former Syrian aid workers are likely to struggle even more to have their rights to protection acknowledged.
To be sure, all Syrians, and indeed all asylum seekers, deserve access to fair and dignified asylum procedures, regardless of their skills and qualifications.
The case of Syrian aid workers, however, exposes a fundamental contradiction of the international humanitarian community – namely the disposability of its local workers – that international donors, including Finland in its role of EU President, should urgently address.
Nadine Hassouneh is Visiting Researcher at the EuroStorie Centre of Excellence, University of Helsinki and an Honorary Fellow at the The Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL), Amman.
Elisa Pascucci is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the EuroStorie Centre of Excellence, University of Helsinki.