Aid cuts compound already miserable humanitarian situation in Syria

This is especially true in the northwest of the country where 4.1 million people require humanitarian assistance and 3.7 million are food insecure

Aid cuts compound already miserable humanitarian situation in Syria

As Syrians commemorated the first anniversary of last year's devastating earthquake on 6 February, they are in the midst of a similarly catastrophic — albeit silent — crisis.

The decision by the UN World Food Programme (WFP) to drastically cut aid to Syria has begun hitting northeast residents hard, deepening their anguish and layering misery upon misery.

The termination of aid, due to financial constraints, severs a crucial lifeline for the 5.5 million beneficiaries who heavily depended on essential food distributions at the beginning of 2023.

The impact of these cutbacks will be magnified by the worsening economic crises and escalating poverty stemming from 13 years of persistent conflict. According to UN estimates, an alarming 90% of Syrians currently live below the poverty threshold, with 3.2 million individuals on the brink of hunger and malnutrition.

The repercussions of the WFP's cuts will be particularly acute in northwest Syria, where 1,500 internal displacement camps are scattered. In these camps, women and children constitute nearly 80% of the recipients, underscoring the heightened vulnerability of this demographic to the impending humanitarian crisis.

These cutbacks will exacerbate the humanitarian and financial challenges, increase the risk of famine, and drive more people to consider leaving the country.

According to UN estimates, an alarming 90% of Syrians currently live below the poverty threshold, with 3.2 million individuals on the brink of hunger and malnutrition.

Bad situation

The decision by the WFP to scale back aid to Syria did not come as a complete surprise. As global humanitarian needs reach unprecedented levels, global attention on Syria diminished amid other conflicts, donor fatigue, and shrinking budgets faced by humanitarian agencies.

Read more: Don't let Syria slip off the global agenda

Consequently, only $1.8bn out of the required $5.4bn (33%) for the 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan for Syria was funded by the year's end, a significant decrease from the 52% funding achieved in the previous year.

In response to this trend, the WFP gradually reduced aid to Syria through a series of cutbacks, impacting both the number of beneficiaries and the size of food rations provided.

The funding shortfall also jeopardised operations in half of the nations where the WFP operates. However, as aid dwindled, the humanitarian needs of the Syrian crisis surged, with the UN recognising 15.3 million individuals as in need.

Looking ahead to 2024, humanitarian response plans for Syria indicate that available assistance will prioritise the most urgent needs.

The programme aims to transition from broad-scale general assistance to supporting families affected by emergencies and natural disasters through smaller, more targeted interventions.

However, specific details regarding the distribution plan, selection mechanisms, and the number of beneficiaries remain unknown.

Even worse situation

Despite active fighting dwindling down in Syria, the nation's economic prospects have worsened, driven by insufficient funding, rising inflation, and currency devaluation.

The dire economic situation is particularly evident in the northwest, an opposition-held enclave where 86% of the population resides in camps and informal sites.

Home to around 4.5 million people, this region has become a refuge for those displaced by violence and territorial expansion, mainly at the hands of the Syrian regime.

Unlike other parts of the country, the northwest experiences heightened levels of conflict, with ongoing artillery and aerial attacks by regime forces and their allies on civilian areas.

This has resulted in significant casualties and frequent displacement. The situation was further exacerbated by an earthquake last February, which damaged over ten thousand buildings in the region, deepening the loss, vulnerability, and poverty among the local population.

Approximately 4.1 million individuals in the northwest require humanitarian assistance, with 3.7 million facing food insecurity. The latest United Nations statistics indicate that 1.4 million individuals urgently need nutritional services in this already precarious region.

Approximately 4.1 million individuals in the northwest require humanitarian assistance, with 3.7 million facing food insecurity. 


Winter compounds misery

The reduction in international funding for Syria is poised to worsen its existing humanitarian crisis. This development coincides with the onset of winter, a particularly challenging time for residents of camps heavily reliant on food aid.

The distributed food baskets are crucial for each family, containing essential items like sugar, rice, lentils, chickpeas, flour, and vegetable oil for each family.

Vulnerable beneficiaries, including internally displaced persons (IDPs), also receive 15 one-kilogramme bread bundles per family monthly in addition to the basket.

Given that most essentials are provided in the basket, the meagre earnings of beneficiaries are usually allocated to additional necessities like heating fuel and firewood.

However, this winter will prove exceptionally challenging due to the funding cuts, forcing them to prioritise purchasing essential food items over acquiring materials for heating.

Moreover, IDPs, among others, used to sell part of their food baskets to pay for other necessities like vegetables, medication, and fuel. Consequently, the loss of food assistance will diminish the coping abilities of IDPs.

The food cuts will also decelerate the economic wheel in northern Syria, as the food basket provided employment opportunities for many workers, including distributors, transport companies, packaging firms, and others.

Coping constraints

Filling the void left by vanishing aid will be extremely challenging amid the surge of poverty and unemployment. In May 2023, the cost of a standard food basket in Idlib for a family of five hit around 490,000.

Residents of the camps typically engage in irregular jobs, earning a daily wage between 55 and 95 Turkish Lira (equivalent to approximately 35,000-45,000 Syrian Lira).

This means they must secure employment every other day to bridge the financial gap left by the absence of the food basket, leaving no funds for other crucial needs like bread, medication, transportation, clothes, fuel, rent, and vegetables.

Securing this amount, however, is exceedingly challenging due to the scarcity of job opportunities.

The unemployment rate in northwestern Syria has soared to 88.74% among the working-age population, encompassing day labourers. The situation becomes even more challenging for those lacking healthy breadwinners.

The food cuts will also weaken purchasing power as the prices of essential items in the markets, previously included in the basket, surge due to increased demands, especially since most of these commodities are imported.

For example, last July, the WFP aid cut sparked a market price hike ranging from 14% to 66% for various items.

The percentage of children aged six months to two years receiving the minimum acceptable diet is only 11%. This percentage could jump up to 75% after the food aid stops.

Looming threat of famine

The discontinuation of food aid intensifies the risk of famine. This will particularly impact children who relied on nutritional supplements for recovery from malnutrition, previously distributed alongside the food basket.

With the removal of this crucial support, a generation of children faces increased vulnerability in an environment already characterised by displacement, upheaval, and poverty.

United Nations estimates indicate that 22.3% of children in northwest Syria suffer from growth impairments resulting from malnutrition. Additionally, 36.18% of children aged between six months and five years experience anaemia.

The percentage of children aged six months to two years receiving the minimum acceptable diet is only 11%. Experts anticipate these figures to escalate significantly after food aid cessation, potentially reaching 50% to 75% of affected children.

The repercussions also extend to families, compelling them to adopt negative coping mechanisms like drastic reductions in daily food intake, heightened school dropouts, child labour, and a surge in child malnutrition.

Potential exodus

The repercussions of food cuts extend beyond the borders of Syria. The escalating financial and security challenges, coupled with limited opportunities, are likely to propel more Syrians — particularly those in northwest Syria — to seek better living conditions abroad.

Even before these significant cuts, irregular migration had surged in recent years.

According to Frontex, Europe's border agency, the number of illegal border crossings by Syrians into the EU more than doubled between 2021 and 2022, soaring from 46,395 in 2021 to 92,472. Asylum applications from Syria in the first half of 2023 surpassed any comparable period since the refugee crisis of 2015 to 2016, reaching over 66,000.

As the imminent threat of famine looms over northwest Syria, there is a critical need to step up — not scale back — aid. However, donors should also consider a strategic transition from emergency humanitarian assistance to initiatives that foster economic recovery and enhance living conditions.

While humanitarian aid is indispensable during emergencies, in prolonged conflicts like Syria's, over-reliance on such assistance can lead to unsustainable and dangerous dependencies.

Without a pivot towards a more sustainable support model, the risk of exacerbating the suffering of Syrians remains high, compelling them to undertake perilous journeys in search of safer and more livable alternatives.

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