WFP aid cut makes migration the only option, experts say

As world food assistance ends, Syria goes from hunger to famine

The World Food Programme (WFP) announced the end of its general food assistance programme throughout Syria by the end of 2023 following a funding crisis that led to the reduction of the aid programme (Edited by Enab Baladi)

WFP aid cut makes migration the only option, experts say

As world food assistance ends, Syria goes from hunger to famine

The World Food Programme (WFP) announced the end of its general food assistance programme throughout Syria by the end of 2023 following a funding crisis that led to the reduction of the aid programme (Edited by Enab Baladi)

The World Food Programme (WFP) announced the end of its general food assistance programme throughout Syria by the end of 2023 following a funding crisis that led to the reduction of the aid programme (Edited by Enab Baladi)

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Hassan Ibrahim | Muhammed Fansa | Baraa Khattab

The year 2024 approaches Syrians with signs of a coming famine, raising fears of more miserable and oppressive years, following the December 4th decision of the World Food Programme (WFP) that “Food assistance across Syria will end in January due to a funding crunch that had already curtailed its aid programme in the war devastated country.”

A food crisis is worsening and deepening wounds that have not healed for 12 years in Syria. Since 2011, the number of people suffering from hunger has gradually begun to rise, and Syria has become one of the six countries with the lowest levels of food security in the world, and the number of people suffering from food insecurity has reached 12.1 million people (more than half the population), and 2.9 million suffer from severe food insecurity.

Living and economic crises continued in Syria in various areas of control, and strategic and vital sectors retreated, with a lack of job opportunities and insufficient monthly salaries except for a few days. The value of the Syrian currency deteriorated, and the Turkish currency circulating in northern Syria declined compared to foreign currencies.

The military conflict directly undermined food security, with attacks affecting crops, land, farmers, food supply chains, markets, and key infrastructure, and the threats were compounded by the declining role of relief agencies.

During 2022, Syria recorded 171,000 cases of internal displacement, bringing the number to six million and 865,000 internally displaced people.

In this file, Enab Baladi sheds light on the living reality of Syrians and the extent of their dependence on the WFP assistance and discusses with responsible parties, organizations, camp managers, and researchers the reasons for reducing aid, its impact on the future of people in Syria, and the available solutions to avoid the worst.

Lack of funding reduces aid

The WFP announced the end of its general food assistance program throughout Syria next January due to a lack of funding and that it will continue to support families affected by emergencies and natural disasters through “smaller, more targeted emergency interventions” without specifying the nature of these interventions.

The WFP stated that the program to help children under the age of five and pregnant and breastfeeding mothers through nutrition programs will not stop, and it will continue to provide its nutritional program in schools and education centers within the school meals program, according to a statement it issued on December 4, a copy of which was reviewed by Enab Baladi.

Among the programs that the WFP will continue to support is the Livelihood Support Program for the category of agricultural families included in the program, in addition to its interventions that support local food systems, such as rehabilitating irrigation systems and bakeries.

The WFP acknowledged that food security in Syria has become lower than ever before, and despite the gradual decline in the size of food rations and the value of electronic vouchers, the program cannot continue providing food at the current level due to a “suffocating, historic” funding crisis that will have untold consequences on millions of people, according to the statement.

According to the official website of the UN programme, it provides monthly food aid to 5.6 million people in Syria (food rations or cash vouchers to buy food for families), also provides school children across the country with light meals, and works to prevent and treat malnutrition for mothers and children.

But on June 13, the Food Program announced a reduction in its food aid to about 2.5 million people after it had been providing it to about 5.5 million people who depend on aid in Syria, attributing the reasons for this to the lack of funding crisis.

In September, WFP officials had warned that it required $134 million to provide food assistance for the next six months to combat hunger and malnutrition in 3.2 million people in Syria, according to Reuters.

The statement justified the lack of support from donors due to the large level of humanitarian needs around the world, global economic challenges, and financial tightening on the part of major donors, which led to not providing the same level of support to Syria.

The program indicated that the lack of international funding will force the WFP to reduce or plan to reduce the volume and scope of assistance to approximately 50% of the program’s country operations.

White Hands Association, distributing food baskets provided by the World Food Programme - September 5, 2023 (WFP)

White Hands Association, distributing food baskets provided by the World Food Programme – September 5, 2023 (WFP)

They wait relief baskets

Najah, 60, relies heavily on the aid basket, and the woman who lives in the Sadd Road neighborhood in the city of Daraa, southern Syria, said that the relief she receives through the Syrian Red Crescent helps support her family, which consists of three children (the children of her deceased brother), a boy and two girls with disability, one of whom is blind.

The woman explained to Enab Baladi that she owns two family books, one for her family and the other in her brother’s name. She receives two baskets of assistance every two months and sells one of them for 200,000 pounds to meet requirements, such as medicines and school supplies for children, and uses the contents of the other basket.

Mahmoud al-Azzo, 37, a displaced person from southern Idlib who currently resides in the Ahbab al-Rahman camp in the city of Azaz, north of Aleppo, receives a monthly voucher worth $60 to buy food supplies. He told Enab Baladi that stopping it increases the burden on his family of five, and its loss leaves a gap that is difficult to fill.

Al-Azzo’s situation is no different from that of Zaki al-Ali, 54, who is the breadwinner of nine people and lives in the Cobra camp in the village of Sajo near Azaz. His family receives a relief basket every two months from the Shafak organization.

Al-Ali told Enab Baladi that his family depends on the basket because it meets 50% of the family’s food needs, as it contains cooking oil, rice, sugar, and flour, and the option of purchasing these materials is very expensive, as he works in unstable jobs with a daily wage ranging between 70 and 90 Turkish liras.

As for the director of the Azraq camp in the northern countryside of Aleppo, Majed al-Amouri, the basket provided to his family is enough for 15 days, relying on rationing its consumption, and it arrives every two months, while the rest of the days he relies on borrowing.

AL-Amouri told Enab Baladi that the interruption or decrease in aid doubles the population’s suffering, especially in light of the presence of children and heads of families with disabilities as well.

He explained that the interruption of relief causes the prices of goods to rise in the markets. With the presence of relief, a kilo of rice can be purchased for 15 to 20 Turkish liras, and if it is interrupted, prices will rise.

For his part, the director of the al-Tah camp, located south of the city of Maarat Misrin, north of Idlib, Abdul Salam al-Youssef, said that the news of the aid reduction came as a shock to the residents, adding that 300 families residing in the camp (approximately 1,750 people) depend entirely on aid in all its forms, whether it is food, medical or service.

The conditions in the al-Tah camp do not differ from the camps in northern Syria, which number between 1,400 camps (according to UN reports) and 1,800 camps according to local authorities, and camps that were recently established after the earthquake that struck the region last February, and some of them are the result of the military escalation of the regime forces and Russia last October. 

Numbers that reflect the harshness of life

The Syrian citizen struggles alone in the face of the waves of rising prices, and the inability to secure his family’s basic needs amid the deterioration of the pound against foreign currencies, with the absence of any solutions to rescue him from his successive crises, and the salary increase has a negative impact on him, due to the subsequent doubling of commodity prices.

Nearly 90% of Syrians live below the poverty line, and there are more than 15 million people in need of humanitarian aid, according to a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) released last June.

In the worker poverty rate index, Syria ranked 21st out of 117 countries, and in the labor productivity rate, Syria ranked 155th out of a total of 185 countries.

The average cost of living in regime-controlled areas is more than 10.3 million Syrian pounds, and the minimum cost of living is 6.5 million Syrian pounds, while the minimum government salary does not exceed 186,000 Syrian pounds.

The minimum salary, after a 100% increase last August, is equivalent to about $13.3. The US dollar is trading at 14,200 SYP according to the S-P Today website, which covers the trading rate of the Syrian pound to the dollar. At the start of the conflict in 2011, the dollar was trading at 47 pounds.

As for northern Syria, where the opposition is in control, two million people live in camps out of a total of 2.9 million displaced people in an area inhabited by 4.5 million people, and where 3.7 million people suffer from food insecurity, according to the latest United Nations data.

The recognized poverty limit reached 7,318 Turkish liras, and the extreme poverty limit reached 5,981 Turkish liras, and the unemployment rate reached 88.74% on average (with day labor being considered among the aforementioned categories), according to the Syrian Response Coordination Group (SRCG) working in the region.

Government salaries in the areas controlled by the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) in Idlib range between 80 and 110 dollars (one dollar is equivalent to 29 Turkish liras), with the presence of employees in the education and health sectors without fixed salaries receiving their wages with support from humanitarian organizations.

The UN coordination office for humanitarian affairs (OCHA) estimates that nearly a quarter of teachers in Idlib do not receive salaries, and their number is 2,380 out of 10,853 teachers.

In the areas under the control of the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), the lowest wage for employees in the public sector in the northern and eastern Aleppo countryside is 1,140 Turkish liras, and it is given to single muezzins and single cleaners, while those who are married receive a salary of 1,235 Turkish liras, while the salary of teachers reaches 1,750 Turkish liras for single people, and 1,925 liras for married couples.

While in northeastern Syria, which the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) controls, most of the prices of food commodities rose like the rest of the regions of Syria, even the fuel available in abundance in the region, after AANES raised salaries last August, and the minimum salary reached about one million Syrian pounds ($74).

At the beginning of each winter, the suffering of those living in displacement camps in northern Syria worsens - October 2023 (Syria Civil Defense)

At the beginning of each winter, the suffering of those living in displacement camps in northern Syria worsens – October 2023 (Syria Civil Defense)

Food security and its dimensions

Food security: A situation that exists when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their nutritional needs for an active and healthy life, as concluded by the 1996 World Food Summit.

Food security has four main dimensions:

  • Physical availability of food: addresses the “supply side” of food security, determined by the level of food production, stock levels, and net trade in food.
  • Physical and economic access to food: An adequate supply of food at the national or international level does not in itself guarantee the achievement of food security at the household level.
  • Utilization of nutrients: The way in which the body makes the most of the various nutrients contained in foodstuffs.

This includes individuals eating enough energy and nutrients as a result of good care and feeding practices, food preparation, diet diversity, and food distribution within the household.

Stability of the other three dimensions over time: Even if people’s food intake is adequate today, they are still perceived as food insecure if they do not have adequate access to nutrients on a regular basis, putting them at risk of deteriorating nutritional status.

Adverse weather conditions, political instability, or economic factors (unemployment and rising food prices) may have an impact on the food security situation.

In order to achieve food security goals, all four dimensions must be achieved simultaneously.

Decline coincides with international crises

The World Food Programme’s decision was not a surprise but was an expected end to a series of reductions in the food rations that Syrians receive.

The beginning of the end was in 2019, when the Covid-19 pandemic began to spread, and countries, including those funding the UN programme, imposed a health ban and restricted their expenditures to confront the health crisis that caused economic losses.

The reduction in expenditures at the beginning of 2020 was reflected in the amount of food aid delivered to Syrians, and the reduction in the contents of the food basket continued in March of the same year, and the daily caloric value of the basket for a family of five individuals during the month became 1,855 calories.

In 2021, the impact of the pandemic on the world continued, with the emergence of new variants of the pathogenic virus, such as the “Omicron” and “Delta” variants, followed by the World Food Organization’s announcement of reducing the contents of the food basket in September of that year to reach 1,341 calories.

The Russian war on Ukraine and its global economic impact on supply chains are among the most important international events in 2022. The contents of the basket also decreased in May to 1,170 calories, and the value of the food voucher decreased from $60 to $40 at the beginning of this year.

Despite the increase in the volume of humanitarian needs on an annual basis, especially after the earthquake disaster last February, the caloric value of the food basket decreased last April to reach 991 calories.

Every time the contents of the aid basket are reduced, the justification is that the prices of its contents have risen due to a funding deficit, so the reduction is a preventive measure against reducing the number of beneficiaries. However, on June 13, the United Nations Programme announced a reduction in its food aid to about 2.5 million people after it had been providing it to about 5.5 million people dependent on aid in Syria, citing the lack of funding crisis.

The most recent announcement by the WFP to stop its general aid in Syria coincides with the international attention turning and the international humanitarian community intensifying its assistance to the people of the Gaza Strip after the Israeli escalation in the Strip since last October 7.

To inquire about the reasons for stopping support for Syria, Enab Baladi contacted the World Food Programme, as a spokesman for it explained via email that the programme needed about $1.5 billion to reach nine million people suffering from food insecurity with food aid in Syria during the year 2023.

Until the moment the file was prepared, this plan had received only 35% of the required funding, which forced the programme to reach only 5.5 million people until last July, then 3.2 million people until the end of the year, according to the programme’s spokesman.

The spokesman stated that the funding problem is global and the programme faces it all over the world. In 2023, while 333 million people faced acute hunger, global economic headwinds and long-term financial tightening led many governments and other international partners to reduce support levels, and the programme’s operating costs rose with rising global commodity prices.

In numbers, the WFP operational needs in 2023 amounted to $23.5 billion, while the expected funding for the current year is about $10 billion, leaving a “historic” funding gap of about 60%.

In response to a question about the possibility of reversing the decision to stop humanitarian support if funding is received, the spokesman replied that the programme’s activities are inherently scalable, meaning that they can be reduced or increased according to needs and available resources.

Mohamad Katoub, humanitarian activist and former worker in the field of aid and advocacy told Enab Baladi that the aid system has exacerbated society’s dependence on aid, and instead of working to recover and empower affected communities, it has left them completely dependent on aid.

Distribution of food baskets from the World Food Programme (WFP) through the Shafak organization in northern Syria - September 28, 2022 (Shafak)

Distribution of food baskets from the World Food Programme (WFP) through the Shafak organization in northern Syria – September 28, 2022 (Shafak)

Regime accuses UN programme of “politicization”

Three days after the UN programme’s statement, the Syrian regime’s government accused the WFP of “politicizing” the humanitarian aid programs it provides to Syrians, because it did not “coordinate in advance” with it before announcing the cessation of the basic food aid program.

The accusation came after a meeting between the head of the Supreme Relief Committee and the Minister of Local Administration and Environment in the regime’s government, Hussein Makhlouf, with the representative and country director of the World Food Program in Syria, Kenneth Crossley, on December 7.

Makhlouf said, “Syria expresses its dissatisfaction with this announcement without prior coordination, which shows a deviation in the course of the program towards politicization of the humanitarian aid programs provided to the Syrian people, and thus joining the parties working to exert pressure on the Syrian people.”

Makhlouf expressed his reservations about stopping food aid to the majority of eligible Syrians in light of the increase in the number of people in need of aid, according to what was reported by the official Syrian News Agency (SANA).

Makhlouf held responsibility for the “difficult conditions” that Syrians are going through due to “the effects of the terrorist war and the economic blockade,” accusing the United States, Turkey, and “terrorist and separatist groups” of “stealing oil and wheat,” ignoring the impact of government economic policies on the country’s conditions.

For his part, Crossley promised to deliver the message to the program management and to make efforts to continue providing humanitarian aid to the Syrians.

The Autonomous Administration of northeastern Syria (AANES) did not comment on the decision to end the aid program, while Enab Baladi contacted the Salvation Government operating in Idlib and the Interim Government to obtain clarifications about the impact of stopping the aid program on the population in areas under their control, and about alternative solutions or plans proposed or that could be implemented if the aid program stops, but it has not received a response until the moment this file was published.

Aid cut for Syrians in neighboring countries

The decision to stop support for Syria was preceded by another decision to reduce aid to Syrians in Lebanon, as the spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Lebanon, Lisa Abu Khaled, reported on November 3 that the United Nations would reduce the number of Syrian refugee families in Lebanon who receive cash aid to about a third next year, in the face of the growing financing crisis.

Abu Khaled said that “due to significant funding cuts,” UNHCR and the World Food Programme will provide monthly cash assistance to 88,000 fewer families in 2024 than in 2023.

She added that approximately 190,000 families will continue to receive assistance, which amounts to a monthly maximum of $125 per family.

Regarding this reduction, the Jusoor Center for Studies said that it will lead to the continuation and expansion of the movement of legal and illegal migration of Syrian refugees in Lebanon towards Europe in light of the increasing efforts of refugees to escape from the bad conditions and pressures they are exposed to in Lebanon.

The center also believes that the reduction will also lead to the continued return of a portion of refugees to Syria, despite the current circumstances that may expose them to previous and repeated campaigns of arrest, killing, and extortion, in a process that is in line with the Lebanese government’s directions to pressure the return of numbers of Syrian families to their country through security and legal restrictions as well as economic pressures.

As for Jordan, the World Food Programme announced last July that it was reducing its monthly food aid to 465,000 refugees and excluding about 50,000 other people from monthly assistance starting last August under the pretext of a funding shortfall of $41 million until the end of 2023.

In a later statement, the WFP announced a reduction in support by a third for all 119,000 Syrian refugees in the Zaatari and Azraq camps, also as of last August, so that the refugees would receive a cash transfer of $21 per person per month, a decrease from the previous amount of $32.

A food basket in its old form as it is distributed in Syria (WFP)

A food basket in its old form as it is distributed in Syria (WFP)

What are the reasons? Political impact

During the 19th meeting of the core donor group concerned with Syria, on December 6, Dan Stoenescu, EU’s Chargé d’Affaires to Syria, said that referring to the cessation of food aid to Syria, “humanitarian aid alone cannot resolve the long-standing instability in Syria.”

Stonescu added that “the only way to stop the continued rise in the number of humanitarian cases is to address the root causes of the current crisis” and that “what we need now is to empower communities to put forward their own solutions and work for change.”

Political economy expert Joseph Daher told Enab Baladi that there are two interconnected reasons for stopping food aid to Syria.

The first is the inability to advance a political transition in Syria that would allow for possible political and social progress. The second is that Syria is currently not a priority for the main donor countries, which are the United States and European Union.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine led to the redirection of international foreign aid according to the political priorities of the donors, while the political economy researcher pointed out that the Official Development Assistance raising its aid from 186 billion to 204 billion dollars means there is a significant increase in allocations related to treating and hosting refugees inside donor countries, expanding official development assistance to Ukraine after the Russian invasion.

Official Development Assistance is a committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which serves as a forum for 31 donors and monitoring bodies and is defined as financing flows on concessional terms to promote the economic development and “well-being” of developing countries.

Foreign aid from official donors in the form of Official Development Assistance rose in 2022 to its highest level at $204 billion, compared to $186 billion in 2021, as developed countries increased their spending on treating and hosting refugees and on aid to Ukraine, according to a statement issued last April.

Reducing food support to Syrians would reinforce the humanitarian crisis in the country, creating greater reliance on financial remittances from Syrians abroad.

Sending $100 a month is equivalent to five or six times the salary of a government employee in Syria, and with the decline in humanitarian aid and the continuation of the economic crisis in Syria and neighboring countries, most notably the continued rise in inflation, and the austerity measures taken by the regime’s government, the income of Syrians will continue to decline, and costs of living will continue to increase, according to Daher.

Disaster and famine

Over the past years, humanitarian organizations, charities, and UN agencies have repeatedly warned of the worsening food crisis in Syria amid the absence of solutions to prevent or limit the worst.

Last June, the Regional Director for the Near and Middle East of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Fabrizio Carbone, called on the international community to face the difficult truth that confirms that the situation in Syria is intolerable.

Carbone said that failure to act would have serious repercussions for all concerned and would hamper any prospects for a sustainable recovery.

Corinne Fleischer, WFP’s regional director for the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Europe, said many Syrians were repeating the phrase, “The world has forgotten us now,” a stark reminder of the need to do more.

Fleischer added, last March, “We need funds to continue providing food to millions of families, so that Syrians can secure their food again.”

Political economy researcher Joseph Daher believes that the decision to reduce food aid will strengthen the Syrians’ desire to emigrate, which already existed in Syria and Lebanon, especially in light of the economic and humanitarian crisis that the two countries are experiencing, as there is no alternative to immigration for many Syrians, despite the absence of any possibility for economic improvement in Syria in the short and medium term.

The director of the Violet Organization, Dr. Qutaiba Sayed Issa, told Enab Baladi that poverty and suffering will worsen with the World Food Programme announcing a reduction in aid, given that “there are 1,800 camps in northern Syria.”

Sayed Issa added that studies show that 82% of Syrians live in debt, which further exacerbates the situation with the deteriorating health and nutritional status of the population.

He explained that the effects are great, both on the beneficiaries of aid and on workers at the World Food Fund and Syrian organizations, in addition to hundreds of workers who work in transporting food baskets, which means that the lack of aid does not only affect its beneficiaries.

Sayed Issa believes that the effects will not appear directly but will vary in the future, stressing that the decline affects the health status of the population due to the lack of liquidity for treatment.

 

It is terrifying to say that 600,000 children in northern Syria suffer from dwarfism due to lack of food and health care.

Dr. Qutaiba Sayed Issa – Director of the Violet Organization

 

In turn, the director of al-Tah camp, north of Idlib, Abdul Salam al-Yousef, said that if the decision to end the program’s operations continues, and no other humanitarian agency or donors intervene to continue the flow of aid, the camps will turn into graveyards due to extreme hunger and poverty.

The decrease in aid will bring about a radical change for the camp residents in light of the state of poverty and unemployment, and the cases of school dropouts will double because some families will push their children to work, and the cases of divorce and suicide will double, according to al-Yousef.

Ahmed Hashem, social projects coordinator at the Ataa Humanitarian Relief Association, considered that reducing aid is a problem that will transform and change the reality inside Syria for the worse and deepen the needs of families in northwestern Syria.

Hashem stated that these families will lose their main income, and they include the most vulnerable and needy families, including widows, orphans, war wounded, and children who suffer from food shortages and lack of ideal food for them.

Distribution of food baskets from the World Food Programme through the Shafak organization in northern Syria - June 19, 2023 (Shafak)

Distribution of food baskets from the World Food Programme through the Shafak organization in northern Syria – June 19, 2023 (Shafak)

Disastrous effects

The interruption of the food basket has three negative effects, especially on northern Syria, which is crowded with camps, according to Hashem. The first is the interruption of the main income for poor families, especially with the presence of bread accompanying the basket (the weight of a package of bread is a kilogram), and 15 packages of bread are provided every month to the family, in addition to the basket.

The basket also contains basic materials for every family, including sugar, rice, and vegetable oil, which are not found in factories, and there are no companies that manufacture them in northern Syria, which prompts their import and leads to an increase in demand and thus raises prices.

The second impact is the lack of nutritional supplements for children, which were to restore and increase their chances of recovery from malnutrition and were distributed with the food basket. Therefore, interruption of the basket will make a generation of children unhealthy and unable to withstand an environment that is essentially an environment of displacement, deportation, and poverty.

The third negative impact lies in the decline and slowness of the economic wheel in northern Syria because the food basket provides job opportunities for many workers, including distributors, transportation companies, packaging companies, and others, according to Hashem.

Hashem explained that the financial mass entering the north will be lost as a result of the lack of food baskets, which will negatively affect all of society inside northern Syria.

Mohamad Katoub, humanitarian activist and former worker in the field of aid and advocacy said that any reduction in aid has disastrous effects, and the truth of the issue is in the hands of donors, not organizations.

Katoub explained that work must be done on the humanitarian response program to transform it from emergency response to supporting sustainable projects that contribute to the recovery of communities and reduce their dependence on aid, which is a problem caused by the aid system itself.

 

 

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