Some of the children are barefoot, wading through icy pools of mud. Many have only flimsy clothes on their thin bodies. And their destitute parents watch with despair, unable to provide even the basic necessities of life.
Now, the dire outlook for millions of Syrian refugees in their fourth year of forced exile has become worse. More than 1.7 million in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt are facing severe hunger as winter sets in, because the UN’s World Food Program — for most the sole provider of nourishment — is too broke to continue handing out electronic food vouchers.
Unless donor countries ante up $64 million to get the program through December, officials warn, “the consequences of halting this assistance will be devastating.”
“The size of the conflict in Syria is huge,” says Joelle Eid of WFP in Amman, Jordan. “We’ve made appeals, we’ve warned that more is needed. Now we’re forced to cut the program.”
The agency says its Syrian refugee aid was underfunded by about 89 per cent.
As the refugees’ meagre savings run down to zero, she said, “about 99 per cent of those who are getting assistance rely on it (solely) for their food. Up to now we’ve provided only for those in real need. The poorest countries that are taking them in, like Jordan and Lebanon, have no infrastructure and can’t deal with the influx. I can’t even begin to think how helpless these people must feel.”
The refugees are braced for worse times ahead.
“They will be marrying off girls at younger ages just to survive. They’ll be forced to cut back to two, or even one meal a day. Children may be taken out of school so they can work. And they have to stay in this situation because they can’t return to Syria,” Eid said.
But one refugee mother told her that when the aid cuts begin, she fears that her husband will force her and her children to go back to the war zone from which they escaped. “She said, ‘If we’re going to starve he believes we should starve in our own homes.’ ” Others like him, said Eid, have simply given up hope.
The electronic food voucher program has been successful because it allows refugees to buy necessities in local shops, less costly than food distribution. It also pumped $800 million U.S. into local businesses in the needy countries that shelter them.
Like other UN agencies, the food program has fallen victim to donor fatigue, and in spite of repeated pleas for more aid, donor money is spread thinly.
“The world recognizes the right to food, but what we received isn’t enough to let us continue to supply it,” said Eid. If new pledges came in quickly, she said, the agency could get internal loans that would let them bridge the gap. As it is, they are running on empty.
Canada is the WFP’s third largest donor, and has provided it with $337,750,000 since January 2014. Forty-two million dollars were earmarked for the Syria crisis — $26 million to aid those in Syria and $16 million for refugees.
But, said Maxime Robert, a spokesman for international development minister Christian Paradis, “we are concerned by the reports today of a shortage at the World Food Program and we are urgently examining ways Canada could provide additional assistance.”
Simultaneous, and unprecedented, crises in Iraq, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Ebola-hit west Africa have lowered donor response for Syria, Eid said. In addition to millions of Syrian refugees, the WFP is feeding some 4.25 million Syrians inside the country.
Over the next six months, agency officials say, more than $412 million is needed to feed about three million Syrian refugees throughout the region. It has already been forced to cut rations for those inside Syria, and faces escalating danger in distributing aid in the worsening conflict.
Meanwhile the peril has grown worse for Syrians, with more deaths, destitution and displacement. Since the conflict began, about 200,000 have died, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and close to 10 million of the country’s 22 million people have fled their homes.