Maya Hautefeuille / AFP / Getty Images

Syrian refugees face bleak winter after ‘disastrous’ food aid cuts

Suspension of aid to 1.7 million displaced Syrians could leave many hungry, pondering a return home

“Life was always hard here, but it just got harder,” said Mustafa Ahmed Abdullah, a Syrian refugee in Jordan, from his drafty apartment in the capital city of Amman.

Abdullah, a 29 year-old graduate of Damascus University, was referring to Monday's announcement that the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) had been forced to suspend aid for more than 1.7 million Syrians who have fled the war in their homeland and are now scattered across the Middle East. The WFP made the decision, the agency said, because it had simply run out of money.

With the bitter winter months approaching — bringing with them a set of acute hardships — food shortages will be “disastrous” for the hundreds of thousands of Syrian families in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq who are entirely dependent on international aid to survive, the WFP said in a statement.

It has issued an urgent plea to fill a $64 million funding shortfall, but that would only cover food aid programs for the month of December and preclude similar cuts within U.N.-run camps, which have not yet been affected. Beyond that, said Joelle Eid, the WFP spokeswoman in Amman, “we’re hoping for a miracle."

Food aid from the WFP — which amounted to a modest $1 per day for most refugees — was by far the most important safety net for Syrian refugees. Speaking by phone from Jordan, Abdullah said his family relied on WFP handouts as well as its e-voucher program, which provides refugees with a debit card that can be swiped at grocery stores. Because Jordanian law does not allow refugees to work, many say they have been cornered into an impossible situation. “We don’t have rights like citizens and we can’t work,” Abdullah said. “So what are we supposed to do?”

The timing of the most devastating aid cutback to date couldn’t be worse. As temperatures drop, living expenses — warm clothing, gas for heating units — rise. At the same time, the informal labor market that is available to refugees, such as seasonal agricultural or construction work, tends to dry up.

While Monday marked the first time in Syria’s years-long crisis that food aid was actually cut off, the WFP had been warning for several months that its coffers were nearly empty. In September, it was able to scrape together enough funds at the last minute to stave off a prior suspension threat.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and major NGOs like the Red Cross have been similarly unable to keep pace with the fallout of Syria's civil war, which has resulted in the largest displacement of people since World War II. “For years, we’ve been at least able to keep a balance, to assist the most vulnerable,” said Andrew Harper, the UNHCR representative in Jordan. “But now that balance has been demolished.”

After news of the cuts broke, Harper said the most desperate Syrians told the UNHCR they might be forced to return to the war zone of their home country. Aid workers are bracing for many others to relocate to the U.N.-run camps, where WFP food aid is still being provided, swapping their rented apartments for weatherproof tents.

The UNHCR fears that many parents who remain in place will pull their children out of school to save money on transport, perhaps even putting them to work illegally as street beggars. The cuts have also raised the specter that Syrian women, who head forty percent of refugee households and are especially reliant on U.N. food aid, will be exploited more.

Visualize Syria’s refugees: Where would 9.5 million displaced people fit if they lived in the U.S.?

What's worse, the U.N. shortfalls have been compounded by mirroring cuts from host governments, who have begun to buckle under the weight of the Syrian refugee crisis. Last week, Jordan quietly repealed its offer of free healthcare services for registered refugees, leaving most with no avenue for medical treatment but to pay out of their pockets. The Jordanian government is also considering cutting free education for refugees, Harper said.

Host governments like Jordan and Lebanon defend belt-tightening measures by noting that funding appeals have simply not been met. Since the Syrian crisis erupted in 2011, Jordan has spent more than $30 million to cope with the fallout from a war it had no hand in. Meanwhile, tensions have simmered between refugees and host communities, who resent their governments apportioning aid to foreigners.

“These countries don’t have the infrastructure or economy to sustain or provide or feed these refugees,” said Joelle Eid, the WFP spokeswoman. “The scale is beyond anyone’s capability.”

In recent weeks, Jordan, in particular, has shown signs that it is cracking under the pressure. According to a recent report from Human Rights Watch, Jordanian authorities are increasingly deporting registered Syrian refugees back to Syria. There have also been reports that Jordanian authorities are occasionally shuttering much of the northern border with the strife-torn country to stem the flow of those trying to escape — trapping hundreds or thousands of desperate people in a war zone.

The Syrian refugees who spoke to Al Jazeera, however, were adamant that the international community was ultimately to blame for their plight.

“Jordan is poor,” said Abd al-Karim, 21, who fled to Jordan two years ago after his family’s home in Dara’a was leveled by regime shelling. “The U.S., U.K — they’re the ones responsible for what’s happening in Syria, so they’re the ones who should be responsible for us. But now they won’t even let us eat.”

The U.N. agrees with Syrians that the international community needs to do more to avert a repeat of this week's cuts. According to a study by Oxfam published in September, only 11 countries had met over 50 percent of their calculated “fair share” of funding for the Syria crisis. 

But Harper said the problem is not one of ‘donor fatigue.’ In fact, funding has remained relatively stable since the crisis erupted. “The world is just not providing an exceptional level of support” to match the unprecedented scale of displacement, he said.

Perhaps anticipating this week's cuts, Washington last week upped its contribution to the WFP by $125 million, including $70 million bookmarked for refugee vouchers. It has already contributed nearly $1 billion to WFP programs. Harper said the U.N. was hopeful that other Western and Gulf countries, in particular, would follow suit as the reality of Monday’s announcement hit home. In that event, Eid said the WFP’s electronic vouchers could swiftly be recharged.

But with a political solution to Syria’s violence looking ever remote, Syria's refugees worry how long this month-to-month funding model can sustain them.

For his part, Abd al-Karim said he had no plans to return to Syria, no matter how bleak things got. With his home in ruins, he said he had no choice but to wait out the war in Jordan. “I can get by here,” he said. “All I’m asking for is some food.”

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