Failure to fund Syrian refugee crisis could prompt new migration, warn UN officials

In recent months, the world has watched in real-time as Afghanistan spiralled deeper into humanitarian catastrophe. Now it is teetering on the edge of full economic collapse, writes Harlem Désir, EPA-EFE/TOLGA BOZOGLU

Failure to properly fund humanitarian aid missions could lead to another wave of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe, UN officials have warned ahead of an EU-hosted donor summit this week.

“If we cannot resource (programmes) properly then further population movement cannot be ruled out,” Fillipo Grande, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters, pointing to recent reports of boats leaving Lebanon for Cyprus.

“This is a wise investment,” Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, told donor countries, adding that “if people cannot stay then they will move on.”

The two UN officials were speaking on Thursday (25 March) ahead of the fifth ‘Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region,’ pledging summit in Brussels on 29 and 30 March, at which the UN hopes to raise a total of $10 billion from donor countries in order to support millions of Syrian refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries.

However, officials say that there is a “concerning downward trend” in donor pledges and fear that the Syria summit could see a repeat of last year’s summit to fund humanitarian aid in war-torn Yemen, which received only 50% of the monies required.

Officials say that they have had no firm financial commitments from countries.

The war in Syria has killed close to 500,000 people since it started in 2011 and displaced nearly half of the country’s population, but the UN and aid agencies fear that donor fatigue may be growing.

“Year after year it (the situation) becomes more complex and more serious,” said Grande, adding that “the consequences of underfunded resources may be very, very serious for refugees in the region.”

The summit will focus on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian civil war and not on the wider approach taken by world leaders.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, has stated that “there will be no end to sanctions, no normalisations, no support for reconstruction until a political transition is underway.”

However, political and economic sanctions imposed by the likes of the EU and the United States appear to have done little to loosen Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power, prompting analysts to suggest that a rethink is needed.

85% of Syrian refugees, totalling 5.6 million, are currently trying to survive in the five neighbouring countries, while a further 1 million are in other countries.

Neighbouring Lebanon, which is in the midst of its own domestic political and economic crisis, is particularly in need of financial support, said Grande and Steiner.

Last year’s conference, also hosted by the EU, generated pledges totalling €12.4 billion. The EU, for its part, has contributed €22 billion over the past ten years.

However, the COVID pandemic has hurt public finances, prompting a number of European and North American countries to cut development and aid budgets. The two UN officials expressed “serious concern” that this pattern could be followed next week and urged donor countries to think about the medium and long term.

“You can’t choose to postpone crises,” said Steiner, adding that the international community has “often paid a heavy price for not intervening early enough”.

“Cash for Lebanon will help keep the country afloat,” added Grande. “Not doing so would be another nail in the coffin”.

International donors pledge $7.7 billion in aid to Syria

International donors pledged $7.7 billion in aid to face the ongoing humanitarian crisis at a Syrian aid summit co-hosted by the EU and the United Nations on Tuesday (30 June).

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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