Winter Preparedness Programs for Syrian Refugees Suffer Devastating Funding Shortfalls

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Written by Jordan Ernstsen, Editorial Intern

In late September, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a report citing an increase in the number of individuals seeking refuge from conflict-ridden regions across the globe. Collectively, the report estimates the global refugee crisis affects over 51 million people–an all time high since the end of World War II. This alarming statistic serves as a barometer and reminder of the level of human rights concerns, political instability, and violence prevalent throughout the world.

Unfortunately, as UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres has recently stated, “The global humanitarian system is…in great difficulty.” The ability of the international community to properly respond to these crises and meet the needs of displaced individuals has fallen into disrepair. He further stated, “The international community needs to prepare their populations for the reality that in the absence of solutions to conflict, more and more people are going to need refuge and care in the coming months and years.”

The devastating and prolonged civil war in Syria stands at the center of the refugee crisis, having now produced more refugees than any other conflict in the past two decades. With this year’s rise in asylum seekers and internal displacement, offering sustained assistance to Syrians throughout the winter is at the top of UNHCR’s agenda. However, the UNHCR reports that the humanitarian response to the Syrian conflict is suffering a US$58.45 million funding shortfall. This gap in funding could leave as many as 1.7 million Syrians without proper food, clothing, and shelter during the winter. UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming stated that, “The shortfall affects our winter preparedness programs…protecting people from cold requires funds.”

Compounding the problem of winter relief efforts, the World Food Programme (WFP) announced in early December that it had been forced to suspend food assistance to Syrian refugees due to lack of funding. “This couldn’t come at a worse time,” said Mr. Guterres. “Winter is already an extremely difficult period for Syrian refuges, but the suspension of food assistance at this critical juncture is going to be devastating. It will impact tens of thousands of the most vulnerable refugee families who are almost entirely dependent on international aid.”

UNHCR’s winter preparations inside Syria are comprised of an inter-agency effort to aid displaced persons. The current program is designed to provide winterized kits–which include thermal blankets, plastic sheeting, winter clothes, mattresses, sleeping mats, and hygiene supplies–various materials for warm and dry shelter, and the provision of food with the assistance of the WFP. Outside of Syria, the WFP seeks to provide food for refugees in the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt.

WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin stated that the agency’s emergency operations are in need of $64 million for December alone. Without the funding, Syrian refugee settlements in neighboring countries will suffer from insufficient food, and inadequate clothing and shelter. With proper funding, WFP indicated it could immediately resume its food assistance program for refugees. “I urgently appeal to the international community–support WFP now, don’t let refugees go hungry,” said Mr. Guterres. “It must be funded.”

Throughout the region, UNHCR has invested over $102 million to help Syrians survive the winter, but this still falls short of the necessary budget.

Photo: UNHCR/D. Kashavelov (cc).