Lack of money forces U.N. to stop Syrian refugee food aid

A Syrian refugee woman with her children prepares food near her tent as a heavy snowstorm batters the region, in a camp for Syrians who fled their country’s civil war, in Ketermaya, Lebanon. (AP Photo/Mohammed Zaatari)

The United Nations announced it has been forced to stop providing food aid to Syrian refugees. Three weeks after the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reduced refugee assistance due funds shortages, the World Food Programme (WFP) says it cannot keep providing food to 1.7 million Syrian refugees. And just like before, the decision is because there is not enough money.

The civil war in Syria continues, people still flee for safety, countries hosting refugees are struggling to keep up and the United Nations does not have enough money to support the basic needs of millions of people. That alone is bad, but the cold winter is arriving. The timing could not be worse.

“We are very concerned about the negative impact these cuts will have on the refugees as well as the countries which host them. These countries have shouldered a heavy burden throughout this crisis,” said Muhannad Hadi, WFP regional emergency coordinator for the Syria crisis.

WFP provides assistance in the form of food vouchers to 1.7 million Syrian refugees living in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. The agency says it needs $64 million to cover its costs through the end of December. It can resume operations the moment the money is made available.

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Humanitarian needs from Syria to the Central African Republic to Haiti have strained the budgets of both WFP and UNHCR. WFP cut food rations in non-emergency countries at the start of 2014. The warning that more money was not sufficient came as WFP and UNHCR announced in July that food rations for 800,000 African refugees were to be reduced. For some, that would mean just 850 calories per day. The warnings weren’t enough, and the budget gap remained as WFP made cuts to food aid for people in Syria and Afghanistan.

And so the story continues with yesterday’s announcement. Without enough money, WFP cannot meet Syrian refugees’ needs, placing an already-vulnerable group in ever-worsening circumstances.

“A suspension of WFP food assistance will endanger the health and safety of these refugees and will potentially cause further tensions, instability and insecurity in the neighboring host countries,” said WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin, in an appeal to donors. “The suspension of WFP food assistance will be disastrous for many already suffering families.”

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Without more money, the trouble will spread beyond refugee populations. WFP also warned that it could be forced  again to cut aid to people in Syria. For more than a year, the U.N. agencies meant to provide essential humanitarian support cannot do their jobs because there is not enough money. Currently, only 51 percent of the $3.7 billion requested by UNHCR to support Syrian refugees has been funded.

Major crises are taxing the global humanitarian industry. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa, fighting in South Sudan, Central African Republic and Syria, and hunger in the Sahel are just some of the multitude of problems that require support.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.