As Syria’s civil war enters its sixth year over 11 million people are now internally displaced, and a further 4.6 million have fled to neighboring countries.
As the conflict continues unabated humanitarian organizations are increasingly under pressure, struggling to cope with growing budget deficits, compromising their ability to provide assistance to Syrian refugee communities in countries bordering Syria.
Despite pledges totaling $11 billion made at the London Donor Conference in February to assist Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan —the largest amount ever raised in a single day for a humanitarian crisis —aid agencies are likely to face an ever increasing burden in 2016 without a political solution to the conflict.
Last September the UN announced that the Syrian refugee response plan for 2015 had only received 35% of the $1.6 billion required to support refugees in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.
The deficits lead to cuts to domestic and hospitalization subsidies in numerous UN-affiliated organizations including the UNHCR, UNRWA, and the World Food Program, which have been identified as a primary cause fueling the increasing migration of Syrian refugees towards Europe.
Since the outbreak of war in Syria UNHCR — the UN refugee agency — has witnessed a huge expansion in its operations in states bordering Syria.
For example, in Lebanon, a country with a pre-war population of 4.5 million, over 1.2 million Syrian refugees have registered with UNHCR since 2011. As a result the organization has opened five new field offices in the country, and expanded from 94 staff members to 579.
“In 2010 the Lebanon office was focused primarily on meeting the needs of some 10,000 mostly Iraqi refugees,” says Dana Sleiman, noting that a “1,000-percent increase” in refugee arrivals has transformed Lebanon into UNHCR’s largest single country operation.
“Last year (due to budget deficits) we had to reduce secondary healthcare coverage because it was extremely cost prohibitive and we simply did not have enough funds to sustain the program,” explains Sleiman.
As the Syrian conflict has continued unabated aid agencies have sought to transition their programs in order to curtail growing budget deficits.
This transition has entailed a move away from a singular focus on emergency aid programs — providing basic cash and food assistance —towards resilience building initiatives aimed at providing refugee communities in states bordering Syria greater self-sufficiency through employment opportunities, and increased access to local governance and power structures.
“The third sector has now accepted it is a protracted conflict,” says Jon Bennett, an Oxford-based development consultant.
“Three years ago both charities and refugees were thinking short-term.”
But the efficacy of resilience building programs, notes Eva Svoboda, a research fellow, at the London based Overseas Development Institute, is contingent on donors and host governments seeing eye to eye.
Opening up domestic job markets for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey in order to stem the flow of Syrian refugees towards Europe was identified as a key tenet at the London Donor Conference.
But Svoboda notes that asking any country to open up it’s domestic job markets to refugees “is a pretty hard sell.”
In Lebanon, for example, a plethora of political figures have balked at the idea, accusing European states of hypocrisy and self-interest, citing the detrimental impact of the Syrian crisis on economic, political, security, and demographic realities in the country.
In addition to over 1.2 million Syrian refugees that have entered Lebanon since 2011 the country has a pre-existing Palestinian community of some 450,000. The presence of this community in Lebanon dates back to 1948 but their access to mainstream job markets remains highly restricted.
According to the International Labor Organization, as a result of the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon, by 2015, roughly 170,000 Lebanese had fallen into poverty, unemployment doubled to 20 percent, and accumulated economic losses reached $7.5 billion.
February’s London Donor Conference — hosted by the UK government in association with Germany, Norway, and Qatar — raised a total of $11 billion. However, significantly only $5.6 billion was allocated for 2016 — considerably less than the $8.5 billion the UN had sought.
Jean Shaoul, a professor specializing in public policy and corporate performance at the Manchester Business School, points out that the $11 billion pledged in London to assist Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, is only equal to the amount requested by the Lebanese government alone.
“The aid is not that much compared to the money being spent on weapons” notes Shaoul, who has criticized the agenda of donor states involved in the London conference.
Whilst a plethora of agencies working in the humanitarian sector recorded increasing budget deficits last year due to the proliferation of regional conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, reports by IHS Jane’s Global Defense Trade Report and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated $18bn was spent on weapons in the Middle East region in the calendar year.
The eight countries that have sent the most weapons to Syria since 2011 have accepted only 2 percent of the number of refugees Germany has accepted.
“In conflicts there are always donors that are also belligerents, this is not new,” says Svoboda.
“But pledges, and donations have to go hand in hand with a political process.”