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SYRIA – JORDAN – LEBANON

Syrian refugees in Middle East face growing hunger, WFP

The Azraq refugee camp, mostly populated by Syrian refugees, in Jordan.
The Azraq refugee camp, mostly populated by Syrian refugees, in Jordan. Reuters/Muhammad Hamed

The World Food Programme has had to drop a third of Syrian refugees from its relief efforts this year due to lack of funds, it announced on Tuesday. As the media spotlight is on those refugees who make the long journey to Europe, the UN agency says that the far greater numbers who remain in the Middle East are growing more and more desperate.

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The World Food Programme (WFP) began distributing aid to Syrians affected their country’s civil war since it began in 2011.

The agency’s efforts have been directed towards displaced people inside Syria and to the estimated four million refugees who fled to neighbouring countries, namely to Jordan and Lebanon.

Aid has come in the form of food relief to those in refugee camps and food vouchers, which can be redeemed in supermarkets throughout the region, to refugees in urban areas. 

Dina el Kassaby, WFP spokesperson, speaking from Jordan

But the agency says funding shortages have been forcing it to scale back its activities since January and that it now focussing its resources on 1.3 million of the most vulnerable refugees, down from 2.1 million at the start of the year.

The amount of the voucher has also been cut in half and they are now worth about 10 euros per person, per month.

“Now people are living off rice, bulgar and cooking oils and they’re trying to cope with this reduced resource by skipping meals,” says Dina el Kassaby, a WFP spokesperson currently in Jordan. “Some are eating as few as one meal per day and also eating food of lower nutritional value.

“Our assessments show that food insecurity amongst refugees is drastically increasing as the years go by, with about 70 per cent of the refugees in Lebanon and Jordan are living below the poverty line.”

As a result, refugees are growing more desperate and considering moving elsewhere. But, even if they are coming to Europe by the thousands, the WFP says that raising the money needed to join smuggling channels is simply out of the question for the vast majority.

Gregory Barrow, head of WFP London office

“Those refugees that we’re seeing moving to Europe are those who are able to either to borrow or to scrounge the resources they would need to pay for the journey,” el Kassaby says. “The refugees that the WFP is assisting are extremely vulnerable families, many of whom are in deep debt, borrowing money to be able to pay the limited rent they have to pay or to buy enough food to make up the gap since the WFP has reduced their vouchers."

“Many people are telling me that as the situation gets worse, they are considering going back to the war zone inside Syria,” El-Kassaby adds. “Most of these people left Syria in the first place because their homes or villages were attacked. So this is a very desperate measure that people are taking. They are reaching rock bottom.”

As European governments look to take in more refugees, the WFP is calling on funding levels to be restored or maintained in the Middle East region, so that people receive help where they are.

“We appreciate that it’s difficult to stay on an emergency footing for this amount of time and that we need to recalibrate the kind of operation and response we’re providing to recognise that this crisis is probably going to drag on for another five, 10 or 15 years,” says Gregory Barrow, head of the WFP’s London office.

“In the meantime, we’re calling on the governments that have been so supportive to us in the past to maintain those levels of funding, so that we can reinstate rations and provide the support that so many of these refugees need.”

Barrow estimates the cost of continuing the WFP’s relief efforts through to the end of 2015 at 300 million euros.

“In the beginning, people were very sure they would go back to Syria. They were sure they were going to seek refuge in the neighbouring countries for a few weeks or months,” says el Kassaby. “Now, people are giving up hope and telling us the international community either does not know or has forgotten about their plight.”

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