Aid organizations face difficulties in drawing global attention as the plight of Syrians deteriorates

Najwa al-Jassem, residing in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, is finding it difficult to provide for her four children and pay for their tent’s rent after six months of receiving a call, informing her that her U.N. assistance would be halted.

While previously, her family was given food rations and a cash allowance that supported their monthly expenses, they now receive only $20 a month, which is barely enough to cover their dwelling’s cramped quarters.

Her husband occasionally gets daily wage work, but due to the children’s young age, they cannot work in the fields. As a result, the family barely manages to have one meal a day, highlighting the dire economic situation they are facing since the stoppage of their aid.

At the annual donor conference hosted by the European Union in Brussels, aid agencies anticipate difficulties to gain global attention for the worsening situation of Syrians like al-Jassem. The conference aims to provide humanitarian aid solutions to tackle the Syrian crisis. However, with the current global health, economic crises alongside other burning global issues, it may be arduous to bring back the world’s attention to the humanitarian crisis experienced by Syrian refugees in Lebanon and elsewhere.

Aside from helping Syrian refugees in neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, the two-day conference aims to provide aid to those still within war-torn Syria. Organizers of the conference are targeting to raise $11.2 billion in funding this year, but humanitarian officials have expressed concerns that the amount of pledges may fall short of the target.

Despite this, organizers and aid agencies remain committed to addressing and helping alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria.

The day before the conference, on Tuesday, the World Food Program reported a severe funding crisis, calling it “unprecedented” and resulting in a forced reduction of aid for 2.5 million of the 5.5 million people in Syria who rely on food distribution assistance. The tragic situation has prompted widespread concerns among aid agencies and officials, who warn of the disastrous consequences this sudden loss of aid could have on the already struggling population inside Syria.

The timing of the conference has coincided with the 13th year of the ongoing Syrian conflict that started as an uprising, leading to a brutal civil war. Syria’s already dire situation was complicated with the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in February that devastated the country, especially its poor infrastructure. The World Bank estimated that the country suffered a loss worth over $5 billion in terms of damage.

The earthquake had destroyed homes and hospitals, further worsening the condition of Syrians. As a result, there is an urgent need to provide humanitarian aid and financial assistance to support those who have been adversely affected by the conflict and earthquake.

The timing of the conference is politically sensitive, especially for refugees living in neighboring countries. The recent political developments in Syria have given President Bashar Assad significant support with the Arab League’s return to Damascus. In response, neighboring countries, including Turkey and Lebanon, are calling for Syrian refugees to be repatriated en masse.

However, this has led to a surge in anti-refugee rhetoric in these countries, which are presently grappling with their political and economic turmoil. Aid organizations expect support for refugees at the conference, but political developments in the region may jeopardize refugees’ progress towards their safety and security.

Lebanon has placed the blame for the country’s economic decline on the estimated 1.5 million refugees in the country, leading officials to impose curfews on refugees and limiting their ability to rent homes. Rights organizations have also raised concerns over the Lebanese military’s deportation of hundreds of Syrian refugees in recent months.

Turkey had initially welcomed millions of Syrians with compassion, but their repatriation became a top theme in last month’s presidential and parliamentary elections, ending in a new term for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. However, many rights groups believe that the repatriation of these refugees may not be their safest option as the conflict and political unrest still prevail in Syria, among other factors. The conference may serve as a platform to explore possible humanitarian solutions and support moving forward.

For years Turkey’s government defended its open-door policy, but in recent years, it has commissioned housing developments in Turkish-controlled areas of northwestern Syria with the aim of encouraging refugees to return. These developments have been introduced to dissuade Syrian refugees from seeking asylum in other countries in Europe and beyond, given the costs and challenges associated with emigrating abroad.

Furthermore, there have been reports of ongoing talks between the Syrian and Turkish governments that primarily focus on improving strained relations between Ankara and Damascus. These discussions have fueled concerns among some rights groups over the potential for forced repatriation of Syrian refugees. While the dialogue may mark an essential step towards resolving differences that have led to much of the conflict within the region, any solution with respect to refugee support needs to prioritize their safety and well-being.

Even though some Syrian refugees have voluntarily returned from Turkey and Lebanon in the past, the ongoing political volatility in Syria has made most hesitant to leave their temporary homes abroad. In Turkey, the government has carried out sporadic forced deportations, while Erdogan’s political challengers took a harder stance, vowing to repatriate refugees en masse.

Amid these political developments, refugees like Fteim Al-Janoud at the camp in Lebanon find it challenging to sustain their basic needs, and sending her six children to school is beyond their means. But despite such hardships, Fteim believes the situation in Syria is worse than that in Lebanon, in terms of both security and welfare. The conference aims to improve the situation of refugees like Fteim in a way that prioritizes their safety and well-being.

Fteim stated that if security conditions were good and their homes repaired, they would be willing to go back to Syria despite Assad still being in power. However, in recent years, aid for Syria has decreased as donors rushed to support countries like Ukraine, which was hit hard by conflict and saw millions displaced. The COVID-19 pandemic additionally caused a further deterioration of the global economy.

As a result, humanitarian officials like Ivo Freijsen, the U.N. refugee agency’s representative to Lebanon – where nearly 90% of refugees are in extreme poverty and rely on aid – warn that funding levels need to be maintained and even increased to help more people and address the escalating crisis. With challenges like these facing refugees, aid agencies and policymakers see enormous importance in providing continued assistance to mitigate their suffering and improve their lives.

During the previous year’s conference, donors pledged $6.7 billion, falling billions short of the U.N.’s $10.5 billion appeal. The funds were meant to be split almost equally between aiding Syrians within Syria’s war-torn country and those living as refugees. However, the shortage in funding had serious ramifications, like cutting back on hospital services in the opposition-held northwestern region of Syria. Additionally, The UN World Food Program had to reduce the size of its monthly rations for over a million people in the region. The conference reiterates the need to support organizations that provide aid and confront humanitarian concerns, but a crucial part of these efforts involves funding mechanisms conducive to the excellent execution of aid projects.

Imran Riza, the U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Lebanon, acknowledged the challenges faced from donors due to competing priorities, Uganda being one of them. He stated that the globe recently encountered significant upheavals such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit economies hard worldwide. Additionally, crises in other parts of the globe, such as Ukraine and Sudan, have also taken a substantial toll on humanitarian aid efforts, resulting in a more challenging fundraising situation.

While the challenges persist, it is vital to remember the crucial role played by humanitarian aid organizations in saving lives and building a better future for refugees who have fled their countries to find shelter and safety elsewhere.

Imran Riza emphasized the need for international donors to pursue sustainable interventions instead of remaining in crisis management mode. Given funding challenges, proactive measures like tackling root causes and building long-term solutions are the way forward to handle refugee crises more sustainably. Such measures would enable aid organizations to move away from managing the crisis physically and focus more on creating resilient communities and investment infrastructure that can improve the livelihoods of refugees. In short, sustainable solutions would genuinely work towards alleviating the suffering of refugees in a more long-term and lasting manner.

At the refugee camp in Bekaa Valley, al-Jassem has shared that she and her husband are grappling with accumulating debts related to unpaid rent and medical expenses. The situation is increasingly difficult as they cannot get further assistance from the United Nations with the current cut in aid.

Humanitarian aid organizations must offer sustainable and long-term solutions that can help people like al-Jassem and their families come out of the crisis and start anew, with hopes of a better future.

For al-Jassem, nothing is more concerning than the welfare of her children, who have spent their whole lives in declining circumstances in the refugee camp. Al-Jassem reveals her children often go to school without breakfast, and their teachers at times report back, questioning why they did not bring a sandwich to school.

Al-Jassem explains to her children’s teachers that it is due to insufficient food supplies to prepare a meal. The situation spotlights the need for urgent and sustainable humanitarian aid that can address situations faced by refugee families with similar circumstances.