Humanitarians disappointed by new round of shrinking pledges for Syria

Main donors say that conditions for a safe return are not yet met despite pressure from host countries

Displaced Syrian families who fled violence in Syria queue for food at a refugee camp in Bardarash, on the outskirts of Duhok, Iraq. Reuters
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The latest round of pledges at an annual conference for Syria in Brussels represented a 22 per cent decrease compared to last year.

At €7.5 billion ($8.1 billion), the figure was widely described as a disappointment by humanitarian workers as the situation for Syrian refugees continues to worsen.

The funds aim to support basic services delivered by international organisations to Syrians both in Syria and in neighbouring countries such as food, water, and education.

“The donor pledges are disappointing and inadequate,” Nicole Hark, Mercy Corps country director for Syria, told The National. “At the very least, we would have expected to at a minimum maintain commitment levels from last year.”

The international community pledged €7.5 billion for Syria at the conference on Tuesday, the EU commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management Janez Lenarcic said. That figure includes €2.5 billion in loans and the rest in grants.

Donors include the EU Commission, its member states and a number of other countries including Qatar, Iceland and Japan.

Last year, the international community pledged a total of €9.6 billion, including €4.6 billion in grants and €4 billion in loans. Yet an EU financial tracking report published on Friday showed actual disbursement only reached €4.3 billion.

“Unfortunately, our experience shows that the money pledged during the Brussels Conferences do not automatically translate to a firm commitment, evident in this year's funding situation where only 8 per cent of the humanitarian response plan is currently funded,” Ms Hark said.

“At a time where needs are the highest since the start of the civil war, lower funding means reduced support to communities where 90 per cent of the population already lives below the poverty line.”

Fear of economic collapse

Last year, funding in the form of grants went primarily to Syria, followed by Lebanon and Turkey, which host millions of Syrians. Top donors were the European Commission, Germany, the US and the Netherlands.

“We expect significantly more people to be on the brink of hunger given food assistance reductions, alongside further deterioration in access to basic needs and services, such as water, medical care and education,” warned Ms Hark. “Children, young women and mothers will suffer the most.”

The pledging conference was an opportunity for donor and host countries to air their differing views on how to best manage the 14-year civil war in Syria, which many say has become a frozen conflict.

Host countries are urging donors to start discussing voluntary returns, which remain minimal. Their call has been echoed by a number of EU countries, such as Cyprus, where the number of arrivals of Syrians by boat from Lebanon has recently increased.

A number of forced returns in Lebanon and Turkey have been documented by rights groups.

But the EU and several major donors such as Germany and the Netherlands say that Syria remains unsafe for refugees, pointing at enduring rights breaches, and lay the blame for that on Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

Lebanon's Foreign Affairs Minister Abdallah Bou Habib described the presence of more than one million Syrians in his country as an “existential threat”. “All people in Lebanon say the status quo cannot continue,” he said.

Turkey's ambassador to the EU, Faruk Kaymakci, called on revitalising the political discussions to find a solution to the conflict. The main UN-supervised peace process has been frozen since 2017. “We have to get into action. Otherwise, the cost of inaction will be too high for all of us to handle,” said Mr Kaymakci.

“The freezing of the political dossier requires a strengthening of diplomatic initiatives at all levels to find a political solution,” said the director of the European affairs department at the UAE's Foreign Affairs Ministry, Abdulrahman Al Neyadi.

He warned of the consequences of the “unacceptable depreciation” of the Syrian currency, which has lost 99 per cent of its value since the start of the war in 2011.

“The international community must strengthen its efforts to avoid the economic collapse of Syria,” said Mr Al Neyadi.

A representative of Syrian civil society, Sawsan Abou Zeinedin, who leads the Madaniya network, said that the precarious position of Syrian refugees in the region is “merely a result of the failure to address the Syria crisis at the political level”.

“Syrian refugees have the right to, they want to, and they must return to their areas of origin as soon as possible,” said Ms Abou Zeinedin. “For this to be fulfilled, there needs to be a political effort and guarantees to ensure the conducive conditions for their safe and dignified return.”

Updated: May 28, 2024, 2:28 PM