UN halts food aid to 1.7 million Syrian refugees after £40m funding shortfall

Britain is the second largest country donor to the Syrian crisis

Emily Dugan
Monday 01 December 2014 20:58

More than 1.7 million Syrian refugees are facing a winter of food shortages after a funding squeeze forced the World Food Programme to withdraw critical support.

Syrians displaced across Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt Food were given food vouchers by WFP to spend in local stores. But now it has had to shut down the scheme saying it can only be reopened if a shortfall of $64m (£40m) is met.

Britain appealed to other nations to give more to support humanitarian efforts in the region.

Britain is the second largest country donor to the Syrian crisis, and has already committed more than £700m to tackling the humanitarian situation. A spokeswoman for the Department for International Development said Syrians “urgently need the rest of the world to play their part – both in terms of pledging money but also making good on their promises”.

It is the first time WFP has been forced to take such drastic measures during the Syrian Crisis. In a statement today the UN’s nutrition arm said the withdrawal of food aid “will be disastrous” for families scattered across the region. The crisis comes ahead of what is expected to be another harsh winter, which many children in camps are facing barefoot and without proper clothes.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, said: “This couldn’t come at a worse time. Winter is already an extremely difficult period for Syrian refugees, but the suspension of food assistance at this critical juncture is going to be devastating. It will impact tens of thousands of the most vulnerable refugee families who are almost entirely dependent on international aid.”

More than 3.2 million people have fled Syria and another 7.6 million have been displaced inside the country since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began three years ago. Almost 1,700 people were killed in the conflict last month, the majority of them civilians, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.

The WFP executive director, Ertharin Cousin, said: “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 neighbouring host countries. The suspension of WFP food assistance will be disastrous for many already suffering families.”

The UN is understood to be increasingly exasperated at a lack of donations from wealthier countries in the region.

A source said: “It’s a long-running frustration that particularly with these crises in the Middle East, the donors who don’t seem to be coming forward are the Gulf states. They could be contributing more to the international humanitarian system.”

Oil-rich states such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar consistently give little to humanitarian efforts compared with economies of similar sizes. Last year UAE gave just $50,000 to all of WFP’s projects, less than Swaziland, Peru or Madagascar.

A pledging conference in support of UN humanitarian programmes in Syria, held in Kuwait at the start of the year, saw generous promises from around the world, but with one month of 2014 left, UN insiders say much of the money has not come through.

The scheme is delivered electronically, giving people funds to spend in local shops, meaning there is little infrastructure required. Because of this the WFP says that if new funding arrives it will be able to resume assistance immediately.

Experts are worried that the withdrawal of the scheme will add to existing tensions between refugees and local populations. The vouchers have injected an estimated $800m into the economies of refugee hosting countries which border Syria, but without money to spend in local businesses, refugees may face further resentment.

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