Does Assad coerce international organizations to collaborate? – Pressure on UNRWA workers in Syria increases
Recently, reports on security services increasingly interfering in the work of humanitarian organizations in those areas that are controlled by the Syrian Central government amplified. Reported practices include the creation of recipient lists and the forced appointment of working staff by Syrian officials whereby the refusal of any of those measures carries the risk of being dismissed from work.
According to information from the “Action Group for the Palestinians of Syria”, which cites unnamed sources, security services, affiliated with the government in Damascus, reportedly forced employees of the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees) to submit their resignation under the pretext of alleged security concerns.
Between September and October, six UNRWA staff members were also arrested in the cities of Damascus, Homs and in the Northern region of the country. The arrests took place under the ostensible accusation of posing a threat to the national security, based on relations to relatives to Syrian opposition members.
Fayez Abu Eid, head of the media department of the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria, further explains: “The Syrian regime is curtailing the work of the UNRWA in Syria by taking measures without prior consultation”. He points out that this influence of the regime also negatively the agency’s international employment sector, which is supposed to operate independently.
Human rights reports show that work in Syria has been subjected to strict surveillance by the security services since the 1970s, under both Hafez al-Assad and current President Bashar al-Assad. Every employee must possess a security certificate to work in government institutions, educational institutions, business or humanitarian organizations. The security services’ interventions have intensified, particularly since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in 2011. Given the severe economic crisis in government-controlled areas, they are increasingly using their power by placing people, associated with them, in employment positions.
Surveillance of UNRWA activities and the appointment of staff members
In a statement to the Media platform Target, Ayman Abu Hashem, lawyer and general coordinator of the Masir Gathering, commented on the continued interference of the security services in the work of UNRWA. This practice, according to Abu Hashem, is not a new thing but has existed for many years. The “Palestine Department” carries out direct supervision of UNRWA activities, with employees subjected to ongoing security checks. It should be noted that a security clearance is required for the appointment of UNRWA staff following a selection process.
Reports from media and human rights organizations have highlighted corrupt practices among international humanitarian organizations in Syria. This includes hiring unqualified individuals with ties to Syrian regime officials.
Some of these individuals seek to comply to the orders of government officials, some of whom are on Western sanctions lists. Hossam Luke, head of political security for the Damascus government, is cited here as an example. According to reports in the British newspaper Financial Times, his daughter worked in one of the United Nations offices in Syria. Back in 2016, documents were released showing that the United Nations had employed senior Damascus government officials in affiliated aid organizations.
Abu Hashem highlights that these revelations raise legitimate questions about UNRWA’s work in Syria and create doubts on the neutrality and objectivity of its activities. UNRWA has ceased the continuation of its activities in areas with Palestinian refugees for security reasons, including the region with 6,000 Palestinian refugees in northern Syria. The denial of aid in areas under regime control due to resistance from security services is criticized. At the same time, Abu Hashem calls on UNRWA officials to restore their role as an international organization based on helping refugees and not to use the circumstances to advance interests related to the Syrian security services.