'Forgotten' Syria in urgent need of humanitarian aid

  

In the shadow of the Crimean crisis, the civil war in Syria risks being forgotten. As the number of those in desperate need continues to grow, financial aid from abroad is diminishing and the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) has sounded the alarm, EurActiv Germany reports.

Saturday (15 March) marked the third year of the Syria conflict. The civil war has cost over 140,000 lives so far, and over half a million wounded, according to estimates. More than 6 million people have been displaced within national borders after fleeing from their homes and around 2.5 million seek protection abroad, most of them in neighbouring states.

Worryingly, there is no end in sight for the violence. The humanitarian situation for the people in Syria and in refugee camps is dramatic and it is becoming increasingly difficult to gain access to food as the war drags on. And the humanitarian situation is only expected to worsen in 2014, said Muhannad Hadi, an emergency relief coordinator for the UN's WFP in Syria.

Hadi met with members of the German government and parliamentarians last week in Berlin, where he painted a grave picture to journalists. "This is the biggest humanitarian crisis in recent history," he said.

His organisation has 3,000 lorries on the ground, he said, and is expected to provide 4.25 million people with food this month alone. But the WFP is still denied access to certain areas, Hadi indicated. Estimates over how many people are cut-off from the WFP's aid must be calculated with great care, Hadi emphasised. He added however, that he assumes the number is greater than one million.

On 22 February, the UN Security Council passed a resolution that prompts all conflict parties to allow humanitarian access for all UN organisations and their partners. But it seems conflicting parties could not care less about these demands. For this reason, Hadi calls on all conflict parties to stop blocking the work of aid organisations.

It is not yet clear whether or not this will achieve anything, Hadi admitted, saying: "Unfortunately there are also terrorist organisations active in Syria who are denying us access to the people."

But for Thomas Silberhorn from Germany's Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) party, this is not acceptable.

"Using starvation among the population as a weapon amounts to a war crime", said Silberhorn, who is parliamentary state secretary to the Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development.

On Wednesday (12 March) he met with Hadi and assured him of the German government’s support in increasing pressure on groups involved in the conflict

Only 1,000 calories per day?

The WFP also supports Syrian refugees in bordering countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. Roughly 2.7 million of them are expected to benefit from the UN's food aid programme by the end of 2014. They receive food vouchers, which can be redeemed in local shops. Around $400 million are spent in this way, flowing into struggling regions in Lebanon and Jordan, where refugee camps are particularly large. This not only benefits the refugees themselves but also the local economy, said Hadi.

But aid at this level comes at a high cost. In 2014 alone, Hadi said, the Syria crisis will swallow up roughly $6 billion. Of this sum, $2 billion are allocated for emergency relief through the WFP. That amounts to $40 million per week. And there is still not enough food to feed everyone, according to the WFP emergency relief coordinator.

The worst sight, Hadi recalls, are the facial expressions among the women who are not certain whether or not they will manage to get a food package for their families.

To ensure that as many people as possible can receive something, the WFP plans to reduce food rations by 20%, starting in March - a limit of 1,500 calories per person per day. Even for healthy adults that level is too low.

But if international donors do not offer more funds soon, Hadi fears rations are likely to be reduced by 50% this May. There have already been cases of death by starvation among Syrians, though Hadi could not say exactly how many. But even those who do not die from lack of food, he said, are weakened by malnutrition.

The youngest in the population are especially at risk. Babies and small children who do not get enough to eat during the first 1,000 days of their lives can sustain lifelong effects, the Jordanian Hadi warned.

WFP lacks 99% of necessary funds for 2014

But UN organisations have hesitated to make any direct demands, for example toward Europe. Speaking with EurActiv.de, WFP said it is financed exclusively by voluntary contributions from governments, businesses and private individuals. Close contact is maintained with the donor countries, the organisation said.

Stefan Telöken, the spokesman for the UN refugee aid programme UNHCR told EurActiv: "In the area of humanitarian aid, the EU is one of the biggest donors of local humanitarian aid. We hope that this strong engagement will continue to advance, as demand in this area is expected to increase due to the growing number of refugees, internally displaced persons and destitute among the civilian population."

How much money has the EU already spent on Syria aid? In 2013, Brussels contributed $336.6 million to worldwide WFP efforts, the organisation says. But the WFP receives much more, roughly $1.14 billion, individually from the EU member states. Of these, $362 million were spent on Syria aid (including in neighbour countries). In total, the EU and its member states financed roughly 30% of the WFP's emergency relief for Syria, the organisation indicated.

But the WFP is concerned that the financial situation for 2014 is especially precarious. Until now, several EU member states have donated a total of $24.3 million but according to the WFP that is less than 1% of what is needed. Asked about the status of this year’s financial commitments, the director of WFP's Berlin office did not reveal much. The scale of worldwide donor commitments hovers around $300 million, Südhoff said. 

In 2013, Germany supported the WFP with a contribution of $250 million. According to the German Foreign Office, the Federal Republic's commitments to humanitarian aid in Syria for the current year already amount to $110 million. Since 2012, Germany has spent the equivalent of around $670 million on the Syria crisis, $350 million of which was meant for humanitarian aid.

'The people cannot wait'

In light of totally inadequate funds for 2014, Syria's emergency relief coordinator Hadi urges for haste. "It is very important that the contributions come and that they come soon. If we receive funds today, it takes six weeks to reach the people in Homs as food." This means money that the WFP receives in March, Hadi pointed out, does not reach those in need until May. "The people cannot wait," he said.

In addition, the war in Syria has gained a competitor for public attention over the past few weeks: the crisis in Ukraine and on the Crimean peninsula. "Concerns exist, that the tensions within the international community regarding Ukraine will make the search for a solution to the Syrian conflict much more difficult than it already is – and in the worst case scenario, impossible", Telöken said, assessing the political consequences.

Concerning the willingness of donors to offer financial aid to Syria, Hadi also does not rule out negative effects due to the Crimea crisis. But he seems to show calculated optimism: "There is a feeling of responsibility among the donors, to support the people in Syria. We have seen this over the past two years and I am sure that it will remain so."

And then there are the Gulf states, Hadi said, who still contribute generously. Kuwait alone donated $300 million last year, he pointed out, adding that this year the amount is expected to be around $500 million. Hadi also hopes Saudi Arabia will commit to a substantial amount of aid soon.

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