UN to cut food aid for Syrian refugees in Jordan amid huge funding shortfall

World Food Programme says it must 'take from the hungry to feed the starving', as Ukraine crisis undermines help to victims of civil war in Syria

Syrian refugee children on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan. AP
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The United Nations World Food Programme will cut food stipends to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Jordan by a third, partly due to having to accommodate aid requirements stemming from the war in Ukraine, the group tells The National.

The cuts, due to take effect next month, are the first tangible sign of international focus on Ukraine undermining aid to Syrian victims of a civil war, with the Middle East increasingly confined to the shadows as the war in Europe takes centre stage.

The WFP said in response to written questions from The National that Ukraine and other "competing requirements", as well as surging global food and fuel prices, had "made it difficult for WFP to raise the required resources to maintain the level of assistance".

The refugees receive other supplies of aid outside of the WFP, but the organisation is nonetheless predicting a shortfall.

The King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre announced on Friday it would be donating over $3 million in medical aid to Syrian refugees in Jordan and last month, the UAE's Emirates Red Crescent announced a package of aid to the Mrajeeb Al Fhood camp, which hosts Syrian refugees.

Refugees started flooding into Jordan and other neighbouring countries in 2011, when a peaceful revolt against five decades of Assad family rule erupted in March. The uprising was militarised towards the end of that year in response to violent suppression by the regime that killed thousands.

The WFP said the cuts would affect "353,000 vulnerable refugees" in Jordan living outside two refugee camps. They are mostly Syrian but also include some Iraqis, Yemenis and Sudanese.

The stipends given to refugee families living in the two camps in Jordan will continue at the same level of $32 per month "while funding is available", the organisation said.

The camps near the Syrian border, Zaatari and Azraq, house 17 per cent of the 667,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan. The rest of the Syrian refugees in the kingdom live mostly in urban centres in the middle of Jordan and in the north.

The WFP sent text messages to refugees in Jordan this month saying “food assistance will be reduced to all beneficiaries outside the camps and that is because of a shortage of financial resources”.

The organisation says it needs a record $22.2 billion for this year to help 152 million people it describes as "food insecure", compared with the $4.8bn it has obtained, with the US being the largest contributor.

"Never has WFP’s funding gap been so wide," its statement said. "Needs outstrip resources, WFP has been forced to take from the hungry to feed the starving."

In Jordan, about 500,000 Syrian refugees are on the WFP stipends. Those outside the camps receiving $32 a month in food stipends will experience a drop to $21. Other refugees, deemed not as needy, will receive $14 a month, compared with $21 before the cut.

Diplomats say the humanitarian focus on Ukraine could further undermine the overall aid to Syrian refugees.

“The picture will become clearer by the end of this year when it will be known how much of the Syrian aid pledges has been realised,” a European diplomat said.

One refugee who lives in Zarqa, Jordan’s second city, said the reduction is making him think more seriously of moving with his wife and three children to Azraq, the smaller of the two refugee camps.

He might receive more money for food in Azraq and save on rent, he said, adding he has been contemplating the move for a while as food prices soar and the stipends he and his wife receive lost value.

“The problem is that I don’t know [whether] we will be allowed into the camp,” he said.

Young refugees in Jordan make a name for themselves on YouTube

Young refugees in Jordan make a name for themselves on YouTube

Another diplomat in contact with UN agencies in Jordan said the Zaatari camp was full and investment in Azraq wad needed before more refugees could be hosted.

“Funding would be needed to expand Azraq,” the diplomat said. “That has not been on the cards.”

In May, a Syrian aid conference in Brussels, the sixth since the conflict began, produced multi-year pledges for $6.7bn, compared with $6.4bn pledged at the same venue in 2021.

The money is earmarked to fund aid inside Syria proper, as well Syrian-related aid in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt — countries the EU regards as the most affected by the conflict.

Even if the aid pledges for Syria are met this year, a European-based diplomat said the Ukraine war has further reduced any chances of western countries paying for the reconstruction of Syria, as Russia has been urging them to do.

“There has been a fairly united European position that there will be no outright reconstruction funding without a political transition in Syria,” the diplomat said.

“The Ukraine war has also made that a practical impossibility.”

Updated: August 21, 2022, 4:35 PM