Ask any aid organisation working on Syria their biggest problems and towards the top of every list will be one thing: you can’t get the staff, or, more accurately, you can’t keep the staff.
More than 100,000 Syrians have travelled to Europe this year as hope evaporates that the civil war will end soon. For NGOs, both Syrian and international, this includes many of their most qualified employees – leaving huge gaps in their ability to help those in need.
Orhan Mohammed, head of the Assistance Coordination Unit, a humanitarian organisation aligned with the official Syrian opposition, said he was losing one or two of his “best staff” every month, including, recently, the director of the medical team. “Doctors, engineers, people who you can rely on, are leaving to Europe,” he told IRIN.
“We are finding replacements, but you have to build their capacities, even if they are doctors. It takes time and the people inside (Syria) don’t have this time.”
Boraq al-Basha, Managing Director of the Syrian Relief Network, an umbrella group representing more than 60 aid groups, said all Syrian NGOs were suffering particularly badly this year. “[Imagine] I am a project manager of a year-long project. After six months I decide to travel. Who will continue the program?”
Making it harder
There are a variety of reasons for the extraordinarily large exodus of NGO staff this year, which has seen short-term trends related to the European migration crisis combine with some longer-running gripes.
The humanitarian response for opposition-controlled areas inside Syria is based in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, about 60 kilometres from the border.
Yakzan Shisakly, co-founder of the Maram Foundation, an NGO run by Syrian Americans, said the cost of living there had increased dramatically.
“An average furnished apartment with a one room studio is now 1,000 TL ($333). Two years ago you would find the same for 600-700 TL ($199-233).
“We are losing a lot of people. We are trying to have better salaries, but we are losing experts: ex-Syrian Red Crescent, people with higher education or language skills. They are going to leave for a better life.”
The salary issue is a particularly difficult one to address satisafactarily. As is common across the aid sector globally, international “ex-pat” staff are often paid more than local hires. NGOs have also banned international staff from going into Syria due to the high kidnapping risk. For Syrian staff, this can mean they are getting paid less to work with far graver risks.
“The position is the same, but if it is a foreigner, [they are] being paid $2,000, wheras the Syrian gets $1,000,” al-Basha said. “Syrians feel: ‘what is the difference between him and me? It is my land, I know the ground, I know the language.’ And the Syrians that work with INGOs (international NGOs) speak English very well. What is the difference between us?”
In addition to such grievances, Shisakly said there were longer-term issues at play here too, especially as Syrians become increasingly despondent about the possibility for peace. “It is not only about the money,” he said. “You need a passport. You need to worry about your kids’ futures. If you have Syrian passport now, it is useless.”
The situation is particularly acute for medical charities, many of which operate in the most dangerous places inside Syria.
Hospitals have been regularly targeted by Syrian government airstrikes, often with barrel bombs – crude, powerful bombs made of barrels packed with explosives and shrapnel – dropped from helicopters with little accuracy.
Since last year, at least 194 medical personal have been killed and 104 medical facilities attacked, the vast majority by the government, according to Human Rights Watch.
Zedoun al-Zoubi, CEO at UOSSM, a Syrian medical NGO providing aid across the country, said there had been a systematic campaign targeting medical facilities.
“One hospital wanted to move to another place as it was targeted many times with barrel bombs. When they moved to that place, it was close to a [rebel] military base. When they moved there, the military told them ‘no, no, no, no, don’t approach us, we don’t want to risk our lives for you.’ Just imagine! A military base is less risky than a hospital,” he said. “Those physicians who stay are in fact waiting for death.”
Understandably, there are large numbers of doctors leaving the profession. “In central Aleppo, there are about 58 physicians, including students, and they have to serve about 300,000 people,” al-Zoubi said. “This summer we lost seven of them, taking the sea to Europe.”
He added that international donors were often unwilling to pay doctors’ salaries for fear of counter-terrorism legislation, instead preferring to provide the “easier” option of paying for equipment, consumables and medicines
NGOs that receive funding from the United States and other Western countries could face prosecution for supporting terrorism if it is shown that their aid in some way helped groups defined as terrorists. This includes the Islamic State but also Jubhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria that controls large areas in and around Aleppo. Many NGOs have taken the view that providing goods that can be closely monitored is safer than paying salaries, as these employees may have to pay taxes to Islamist rebel groups.
This lack of fixed salaries, al-Zoubi said, made it incredibly hard to recruit doctors.
Adam Coutts, a public health expert specialising on the impact of the Syria crisis, said there were no reliable statistics on the number of doctors and NGO workers that had left for Europe but it was clearly a major problem.
Those who flee to neighbouring states, including Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, are not able to help refugee communities due to labour laws, so many end up fleeing for Europe.
“Syrian medics in neighbouring countries need to be given the opportunities to practise and be integrated into the humanitarian response although no one has worked out how to make this happen due to labour laws in various counties such as Lebanon and opposition from the medical syndicates,” Coutts said.