Potential famine among Syrian refugees has far-reaching implications for the Middle East

Erik van Ommering   Last week around 1.7 million refugees from Syria received the following text message on their cellphones:

“We deeply regret that WFP has not yet received funds to reload your blue card for food for December 2014. We will inform you by SMS as soon as funding is received and we can resume food assistance”

The message was sent by the World Food Program (WFP), one of the UN agencies that has played a vital role in supporting refugees from Syria in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt. Hosting refugees “in the region” has been a key policy pursued by the Netherlands and other countries. Accordingly they seek to both provide aid in efficient manners and discourage refugees from seeking asylum inside, for instance, the European Union.

Purchasing basic food items in a Lebanese grocery story (photo by WFP, link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/69583224@N05/8713978464/in/set-72157633416163971)
Purchasing basic food items in a Lebanese grocery, © WFP

As refugees register in their respective host countries, they receive a special credit card (the ‘blue card’) that is charged monthly by the WFP with the amount of USD 30, enabling refugees to purchase basic food items in selected grocery stores. For many who own little more than the clothes they wore as they fled the brutalities of Syria’s war, this support has proved indispensable. Its suspension may therefore spur catastrophe.

During the past months the WFP has issued successive appeals to persuade the international community to fulfill its donor commitments. In vain, as it seems. Each week, the WFP needs USD35 million to feed Syrians across the Middle East. The absence of funding may have far-reaching implications: firstly, the risk of famine among hundreds of thousands of the most disenfranchised refugees. Secondly, it may further intensify social havoc and sectarian violence in societies already overstretched by the unrelenting crisis.

Following the WFP’s announcement, the Lebanese Minister of Social Affairs warned that suspension of food aid will spark famine among 700.000 refugees in his country. The exact number of refugees in Lebanon is unknown: the UNHCR has registered 1.132.258 individuals, yet many estimate their total number at 1.6 to 1.8 million. This amounts to almost one third of the total population. Translated to the Dutch context, this would equal an influx of 5 million individuals over the past three years, all of whom compete for available health services, jobs, places in schools and universities, potable water, electricity, and so on. And 2 million of these would have been out of food since December 1.

If in the Netherlands that would mean disaster, in Lebanon it means even more than that. Decades of conflict have resulted in a weak state that has proven unable to cater even to the basic needs of 29% of its own population, which lives below the poverty line. During the past three years, the border with Syria has turned into a no-man’s land where Hezbollah fights on behalf of the Syrian regime; al Nusra et al. fight the Lebanese Army; and kidnappings, air raids, ambushes and lawlessness are daily affairs. North Lebanon’s Tripoli has been the site of frequent deadly clashes between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime. The Lebanese Army, one of the few credible institutions capable of bridging sectarian divides, has lost a great deal of its support among Sunnis as a consequence of its purported collaboration with Hezbollah. In a further decline of the state, the Lebanese have been without a President since May. Consequently, Independence Day (November 22) amounted to a farce, as celebrations were simply cancelled in many places. It seems the counterweight that has thus far prevented Lebanon from sliding into the unknown is eroding, paving the way for a potential escalation of the social and security crisis.

The suspension of food aid and its repercussions may therefore turn out to be the factor that tips the balance and finally transfers the Syrian scenario to Lebanon in full force – a scenario all too familiar to those who lived through Lebanon’s long civil war between 1975 and 1990. Like in Syria, but due to different causes, there are few institutions that can prevent militias and sectarian logic from taking charge. The resulting anarchy would allow anyone to settle any pending scores – just think Hezbollah, think 400.000 refugees from Palestine, think Israel. Even though most, if not all, Lebanese resist returning to dark days of the past, the ingredients for a dramatic and inescapable backlash are all in place. This would be bad for all, but may initially be especially burdensome for those who just escaped the brutalities of Syria. For them there is no way out of Lebanon.

Resuming food aid should be a prime objective, first and foremost from a humanitarian perspective. It will also be instrumental in retaining a degree of order. However, it offers no way out of a structural crisis that is out of control. Politicians inside and outside of “the region” shied away from assuming their responsibilities when an authoritarian regime was challenged; their inaction allowed the Syrian regime to put its own survival above any other interest; which in turn paved the way for global arms traders and a range of religious and political fanatics to pursue their violent ambitions. The ensuing humanitarian crisis is beyond comparison, and exposes corruption that cannot simply be attributed to “those eternal idiots in the Middle East”. The Dutch, as everyone else, should continue to reflect on their own responsibility in sharing the benefits of democracy, globalisation and arms regulation with the rest of the world. Their present policies should at least compel them to ensure continued food aid to refugees in Syria’s neighbours through the WFP.

Erik van Ommering is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Free University (VU), Amsterdam. He lives in Lebanon and works as program manager in the fields of primary healthcare, psychosocial support and emergency education.

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