BEIRUT // Across the Middle East, the Holy Month is a time when families indulge in luxuries – big or small – to savour after the hours of fasting. For many among the more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, this meant splurging on such modest treats as meat or sweets, or the ingredients to cook favourite dishes from home and remember happier lives before the war forced them into exile.
This Ramadan, however, such comforts will be even harder to come by.
Citing severe budget shortfalls, the UN World Food Programme has said that food assistance vouchers handed out monthly to refugees will be slashed from US$19 (Dh70) per person to $13.50 from July. It cut the food aid from $27 to $19 in January for the same reason.
The latest cut affects about 800,000 refugees in Lebanon who receive food vouchers. A survey conducted by WFP and the UN’s refugee agency last year found that three quarters of refugee households in Lebanon experienced some level of food insecurity.
The WFP also warned on Wednesday that if it does not receive immediate funding, it will have to cut all food assistance to 440,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan who live outside of formal refugee camps.
The organisation says that its regional refugee response programme has only one-fifth of the funding it needs and requires $139 million immediately to continue operations through the summer.
“If we don’t get anything by September, we will have to suspend operations in all countries – in Egypt, in Lebanon, in Iraq and in Jordan,” said Joelle Eid, a WFP spokeswoman based in Amman.
The cuts come as life has become increasingly difficult for refugees in Lebanon. With no formal camps in the country, nearly all refugees are forced to pay for rent, food, water, electricity and other basic needs out of their own pockets. As the war in Syria has dragged on, their savings have dwindled and their economic situation become more desperate.
The Lebanese government this year slapped additional restrictions on Syrian refugees, making the expensive process of renewing their legal standing even more complicated. Among other requirements, Syrian refugees must now give a notarised pledge promising not to work.
Some break this pledge, but many are too afraid of being arrested and possibly sent back to Syria. Even if they want to work, the Syrians are clustered in the poorest areas of the country where it is difficult for Lebanese to find jobs, let alone refugees.
When they arrived in Lebanon with savings years ago, some refugees initially looked at food vouchers as supplemental. Now, with bank accounts empty and little work to be found, they are necessary for survival.
The reduced amount – less than $0.50 a day – will not get refugees much in Lebanon, not even a pack of bread in most places.
The latest WFP cuts took effect as the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and the non-governmental organisation Save the Children released a report on Thursday on how dire economic situations in the region are forcing Syrian children into the workforce.
Because of poverty “many children are now involved in economic activities that are mentally, physically or socially dangerous and which limit – or deny – the basic right to education,” the report said.
As many as 47 per cent of Syrian refugee households in Jordan are partially or entirely reliant on earnings of children, the report said. In Iraq, 77 per cent of Syrian refugee children work to support their families, Unicef found, and one in three refugee children in the Kurdistan region were approached by recruiters from armed groups.
No inclusive figures for Lebanon were identified in the report.
Salaries for children are low. Children working on farms in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley can expect about $4 a day. Working in shops or restaurants in Jordan, Syrian children can net between $4 and $7 per day. Illicit work pays the most. Prostitution can pay between $21 and $36 per day according to Unicef. Children recruited into militias can earn up to $400 per month.
Further aid cuts could drive more children into the workforce.
Ms Eid said that after the food voucher cuts in January, 14 per cent of refugees in Lebanon said that they removed one child or more from school to cope with the tighter financial situation. Some said it was so the children could go to work, but sending children to school also incurs costs, such as paying for travel and buying school supplies. With food aid now cut to half of what was being given until late last year, even more refugee children are expected to find themselves working instead of receiving an education.
“We feared this was going to be the trend after January and we were right, and we believe it’s going to get worse from here,” said Ms Eid.