Aid workers fear a major humanitarian crisis for millions of Syrian refugees in the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, after funding gaps forced the United Nations to cut food assistance for 1.7 million people.
Meanwhile, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Tuesday that the number of internally displaced Iraqis had surpassed two million in 2014.
The UN’s World Food Program said Monday it needed $64 million (51 million euros) to fund its food voucher program for December alone, and that “many donor commitments remain unfulfilled.”
The announcement came as aid groups struggle to prepare millions of refugees for the impending winter, particularly those living in informal camps in cold, mountainous areas.
“It’s going to be a devastating impact. This couldn’t come at a worse time,” said Ron Redman, regional spokesman for the UN refugee agency , “but we’re trying to get everyone prepared for winter and if you look at the conditions particularly in Lebanon in some of these informal settlements, the conditions are already very bad.”
“We’re doing everything we can… to keep their shelters at least warm and as dry as possible. But you can be warm and dry, but if you don’t have food, you’re in big trouble.”
WFP’s food vouchers were helping nearly two million refugees scattered in countries around the Middle East as each registered refugee receives a card that is topped up with money each month.
The amount differs from country to country, but is intended to allow each refugee to buy food equivalent to 2,100 calories per day, but for most of the agency’s recipients, December’s top-up has not arrived.
A nightmare for refugees
Worst-hit in the region is Lebanon, where more than 800,000 of the 1.1 million Syrian refugees in the country were receiving WFP food voucher support.
Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees from neighboring Syria and has this been the biggest challenge among recipient countries.
From 2011, beginning of the war in Syria, till 2015, the UNHCR budget allocated for the country has increased drastically from $13.7 million to a planned 556.8.
In Jordan, some 450,000 refugees will not benefit from food vouchers this month, though around 90,000 living in the UN’s Zaatari and Azraq camps will continue to receive assistance.
In Turkey and Egypt, there are sufficient funds to provide aid until December 13 but not beyond, said WFP’s Regional Emergency Coordinator Muhannad Hadi.
“It’s going to be a nightmare for refugees,” Hadi told AFP.
“Those people are depending on the WFP to feed them, most of them are totally dependent on us. They have no income.”
Many refugees struggle to make ends meet even with international aid, and in Lebanon and elsewhere they often live in squalid informal camps, exposed to the heat of summer and cold of winter.
Across the region, they also face increasing tension with host communities angry about the strain that the refugee influx has put on sparse local resources.
The lack of food will “potentially cause further tensions, instability and insecurity in the neighboring host countries,” WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin said in a statement.
“We are suffering more-and-more, day-by-day. The world is ignoring our misery,” Abu Yaman, a Syrian refugee living in Ramtha in north Jordan, told AFP.
“The Jordanian government helps us, but Jordan is already a poor country and we can’t expect a lot from a country that was already suffering a financial crisis before hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrians,” added the 30-year-old, from the southern Syrian province of Daraa.
Latest in string of cuts
The announcement from WFP is the latest in a series of cuts made by agencies and NGOs assisting more than three million Syrian refugees.
They say funding pledges have not materialized, and “donor fatigue” is beginning to set in, nearly four years after the conflict in Syria began with anti-government protests in March 2011.
Early October, WFP announced it will no longer be able to provide humanitarian aid for those stuck in Syria as well as Syrian refugees bordering the war-torn country.
Last year, UNHCR announced it was cutting some of its aid to more than a quarter of refugees in Lebanon, partly due to funding shortfalls.
The diminishing humanitarian assistance has created bitterness and disappointment among many refugees.
“They want us to go back and die in Syria,” 21-year-old Khaldun Kaddah, who lives in Jordan, said of WFP’s announcement.
“Shame on them… Western countries talk too much about human rights and the truth is that they do not care for our basic rights.”
A UN refugee agency (UNHCR) report published mid November shows that about 13.6 million people, equivalent to the population of London, have been displaced by conflicts in Syria and Iraq, many without food or shelter as winter starts.
The 13.6 million include 7.2 million displaced within Syria – an increase from a long-held UN estimate of 6.5 million, as well as 3.3 million Syrian refugees abroad, 1.9 million displaced in Iraq and 190,000 who have left to seek safety.
The case for Iraqi refugees
According to UNHCR, developments in Iraq have led to a significant increase in registration requests in Lebanon since June 2014.
Although Syrian refugees are the main concern in the country, an estimate of 6,100 Iraqi refugees are also present, forming an 87% of the 8,000 non-Syrian, non-Palestinian refugees.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Tuesday that the number of Iraqis internally displaced nationwide to over 2 million in 2014.
Nineveh in northern Iraq has suffered the greatest population loss with more than 940,000 people fleeing the town due to clashes between the Iraqi army and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, IOM spokesperson Joel Millman told reporters in Geneva.
Iraq’s western province of Anbar has suffered the second largest displacement with more than 540,000 people, Millman said.
ISIS swept through Iraq’s heartland in June .
The Kurdish Regional Government is hosting the majority of the displaced, while the central region of Iraq is hosting around 45 percent of the displaced, he added.
The United States, backed by some Western and Arab allies, launched airstrikes against the group in Iraq in August, expanding operations to targets in Syria a month later.
However, the air campaign, which Washington says aims to degrade ISIS’ military capability, remains the subject of debate, with critics pointing to ISIS’ advances and battlefield successes despite the raids.