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World Food Program says refugee funds running out

Displaced Syrian children are reflected in a puddle as they walk through an olive tree field near the Azaz camp for displaced people, north of Aleppo province, Syria, Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. According to Syrian activists the number of people in the Azaz camp has grown by 3,000 in the last weeks due to heavier shelling by government forces.

Manu Brabo/AP

The World Food Program will run out of money to provide displaced Syrians with food in the coming months unless Canada and other international donors step in to help, the organization's top executive says.

Ertharin Cousin, who met Tuesday with International Co-operation Minister Julian Fantino, said the organization is ramping up its services as needs in Syria grow and expects to feed as many as 2.5 million people inside the country by this spring. But once it reaches that goal, the program will not be able to sustain the numbers beyond that time without more financial support.

"What suddenly happens is, when we reach this 2.5 million we don't have enough to get to 2.5 million in the next month," Ms. Cousin said.

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International donors pledged more than $1.5-billion in aid to Syria at an international conference in late January. But only $200-million of the pledged funds has been received so far, Ms. Cousin said. "It is important that countries actually fulfill those pledges to ensure that the needs that were identified, that supported the pledging conference, can be fulfilled," she said.

Canada has not yet distributed the $25-million it pledged at the January conference and is still "considering how best to allocate" the funding, a spokeswoman for the Canadian International Development Agency said. Canada had provided $23.5-million in humanitarian aid before that conference, including funding that went to the World Food Program.

Rather than scale down operations to ensure its money lasts longer, Ms. Cousin said she has decided to take the opposite approach. "I've said, 'No, lean forward. Use every single dollar every month to feed as many people as we can access,'" she said. "And then, we continue to go to the donors and say, 'You don't want people to go hungry.'"

Ms. Cousin said the World Food Program must deal regularly with both the regime and opposition leaders to negotiate access to difficult-to-reach areas of Syria.

"We are, as humanitarians, committed to serving the needs of hungry people wherever they are, and of course that's true inside Syria," she said. "And whether it's opposition-held areas, or regime-held areas, or areas in contest, we are working there."

In addition to providing aid inside Syria, the agency is also distributing cash and electronic or paper vouchers for about 325,000 refugees outside of Syria, allowing them to buy food for their families at local markets in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

As a group, the refugees fleeing Syria differ from many of those the World Food Program is accustomed to dealing with in countries like Somalia or the Sudan, Ms. Cousin said. "These are people who had jobs, and many of them had homes, and now they find themselves having exhausted all of their resources and depending upon the international community to feed their children."

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Ms. Cousin said she is taking her organization's case to governments around the world, asking them to continue to fund basic food needs for internally displaced Syrians and those who are taking refuge in nearby countries.

"So often in a situation like Syria, where you see a scaled increase in violence, we forget that those are women and children who are still living there," Ms. Cousin said. "And that's what we worry about, is that whatever the political outcomes here, is that we continue to have access to reaching those who are in need."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More


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