Since the uprising against President Bashar Al-Assad began three years ago, more than 3.2 million people have fled Syria; a further 7.6 million have been internally displaced. It is a refugee crisis of a scale not seen for many years. Most of the burden has fallen on neighbouring countries. Jordan and Lebanon are now home to a million Syrian refugees apiece, creating social tension and a strain on resources. Lebanon said recently that its doors are closed to further refugees.
Amid this ever-mounting crisis, the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) has announced that it has been forced to suspend a food aid scheme because of a funding crisis. This scheme is a crucial lifeline for more than 1.6 million refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, by providing vouchers to buy food. The WFP has warned that without this support, many families will go hungry.
The WFP has been bringing food to millions of Syrians ever since the conflict began in March 2011. The voucher programme allows refugees to buy food in local shops, which serves the double purpose of providing food while also injecting money into the economies of the host countries. Thus far, the voucher scheme has meant that around $800m (£500m) has gone back into local businesses.
As that figure suggests, though, the programme is not cheap. The WFP's Executive Director, Ertharin Cousin, has said that $64m (£41m) is required to feed refugees for December alone. Severe funding shortfalls have already meant that the WFP has had to reduce rations to the 4.25 million people it is trying to help in Syria.
Cousin warned of the devastating impact that suspending the voucher scheme would have: "It will endanger the health and safety of these refugees and will potentially cause further tensions, instability and insecurity in the neighbouring host countries. The suspension of WFP food assistance will be disastrous for many already suffering families."
It will have a particularly negative effect on refugees living in camps, such as Zaatari and Azraq in Jordan, as they tend to be dependent on aid rations. This suspension comes as winter approaches; although conditions vary from camp to camp and country to country, experts have warned that most are not equipped to cope with the cold. Refugees living outside the camps have more opportunity to look for informal work to buy food, but many still suffer intense poverty and risk of exploitation.
The suspension of the WFP's Syria work is not a surprise; the organisation warned three months ago that it was running out of money, and that it was suffering an 89 per cent funding shortfall. This is due partly to the fact that there are currently five world emergencies ranked at level 3, which is the UN's most serious classification for crises. These are (in no particular order) Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the West African countries affected by Ebola. Refugee programmes in general are underfunded; last month, the WFP was forced to cut rations by 50 per cent to half a million refugees from Somalia and South Sudan living in camps in northern Kenya.
The impact of cutting the food voucher scheme to Syrian refugees will be far-reaching. Not only will it create dangerous levels of hunger among refugees already living in very difficult circumstances, but it is also likely to exacerbate tension with the local populations in different countries by increasing the strain on national resources.
Some commentators, including Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, have called for Britain and America to contribute more to the refugee effort, particularly given their high levels of spending on destabilising military operations in the region over the years. This is particularly pertinent given that the reason given by Britain for not offering sanctuary to more Syrian refugees earlier this year was that it was contributing large sums to the humanitarian relief effort.
The refugee crisis is showing no signs of abating; nor should international support.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.