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World UN food relief program faces funding shortfall as refugee crisis worsens

Syrian refugees receiving support from the World Food Programme have to make do on less than 50 cents a day.

Omar Ibrahim/REUTERS

The bottom is falling out of the World Food Programme's emergency relief fund just when the UN body needs the money the most.

"It's September and we have received only 40 per cent of the funding for 2015," said Dina Elkassaby, WFP spokeswoman for operations in the Middle East. "It's the worst shortfall we've ever faced," she said, "even as the humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Syria gets worse and worse."

As a result, those Syrian refugees still receiving support (only about 1/3 of the four million crammed into the countries around Syria) have to make do on less than 50 cents a day, half of what they used to get. "It doesn't buy much," Ms. Elkassaby said.

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Until August, they had received the equivalent of $27 (U.S.) a month in the form of an electronic food voucher that allows families to buy what they need from local grocers.

Another 360,000 of the refugees in Jordan and Lebanon stopped receiving food assistance entirely last month. This was so the organization, which is entirely dependent on voluntary contributions, can focus resources on the most vulnerable among the refugees.

Even the contents of food boxes supplied to some four million displaced people inside Syria have been reduced by 25 per cent. "This means 25 per cent less rice, 25 per cent fewer lentils and so on," said Ms. Elkassaby, a native of Vancouver and a veteran of the fallout from the Syrian civil war the past four years.

"Mothers are eating just once a day so their children can get more food," she said. "This can't go on forever."

The program needs another $330-million to provide full assistance to the refugees and displaced Syrians until the end of the year.

Ironically, during the past four years, the WFP has watched as its funding has fallen year over year. It's now expected to be lower still because the advent of refugee sponsorships to Western countries is reducing the pressure that governments feel to support the WFP's emergency fund efforts – even though the the number of people making it to the West will be only a small percentage of the total number of Syrian refugees.

Though Jordan has constructed a camp that houses some 90,000 people, the vast majority of the 629,000 refugees in that country have been forced to find housing wherever they can and with whatever they can afford.

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People are selling off everything they brought with them and are begging in the streets of Amman in order to pay for rent. "Many are considering taking their chances and returning to Syria," said Ms. Elkassaby, "but they're scared."

The situation in Lebanon is worse with more than 1.1 million refugees and no camps in which to house any people. Fearful of another flood of refugees similar to the Palestinians in 1948 who came and never left, the government has even forbidden the construction of any permanent buildings to house people from Syria – "nothing with a foundation," a Lebanese reporter explained.

As a consequence, any of the people with money have rented rooms or flats; those with less money are crowded into shared spaces, while those with no money are holed up in more than a hundred makeshift-shanty towns in places such as the Bekaa Valley.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reportedly does its best to weatherproof these plastic and plywood homes, but winter in Lebanon, especially in the Bekaa, is harsh.

All those Syrian refugees not in refugee camps must do without the services such facilities provide, including schools.

In Lebanon, more than 300,000 Syrian children have missed at least one year of primary school. Unicef, the United Nations children's foundation, in conjunction with Lebanese authorities, has reportedly begun a program to teach some 90,000 of the children this year during off hours in a number of schools.

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Of the many people who fled Syria to take refuge in Lebanon, perhaps the most severely challenged are Palestinians whose families had taken refuge in Syria during the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war.

Being a refugee twice-removed isn't easy, and these Palestinians now in Lebanon are not permitted the year-long residency document most Syrian refugees are given. At best, the Palestinians are granted only two- or three-month Lebanese residency documents before having to renew their papers – on tenterhooks lest permission be denied.

One Palestinian woman, who would give her name only as Umm Qassem (Qassem's mother), said in an interview in Lebanon that she was at her wits' end. She and her children had fled the conflict in Syria and found a place to stay in another Palestinian camp near Tripoli in northern Lebanon. There, they are neither recognized as Palestinian refugees nor as Syrian refugees, and receive no assistance from any agency.

Desperate to get her family to a better life, Umm Qassem said she approved a plan proposed by her oldest son, 17-year-old Qassem, to make his way by boat to Europe.

He set out in the early summer, she said. She hasn't heard from him since.

With a report from Samya Kullab in Beirut

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