Worsening conditions inside Syria and the region fuel despair, driving thousands towards Europe
GENEVA, Sept 8 (UNHCR) - Deteriorating conditions in Syria and neighbouring countries are driving thousands of Syrians to risk everything on perilous journeys to Europe, the UN refugee agency cautioned on Tuesday. As the crisis digs deeper into its fifth year with no sign of a political solution in sight, despair is on the rise and hope is in short supply.
"Inside Syria, the last few months have been brutal," UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told a press briefing in Geneva. "Fighting has intensified in almost all governorates."
She cited increasing rocket and mortar attacks on Damascus, rising vehicle explosions in major cities like Lattakia, Aleppo, Homs, Hassakeh and Qamishli, and heavy bombardment in Zabadani and rural Damascus, which, with ensuing retaliation, is driving thousands more people from their homes.
"Amidst the escalating violence, people have lost their livelihoods as well as their homes," she added. Unemployment in all sectors is soaring alongside inflation, while the value of the currency plummets - the Syrian pound has lost 90 per cent of its value over the last four years. In most parts of Syria, electricity is available only 2-4 hours a day if at all, and many regions struggle with water shortages. More than half the population lives in extreme poverty.
Despite the many challenges and volatile operating conditions, UNHCR continues to provide help to those in need throughout Syria, including providing relief items, cash, health care, shelter, psycho-social support and legal aid.
Syrians now face increasing challenges to find safety and protection in neighbouring countries, which, faced with overwhelming refugee numbers, insufficient international support and security concerns, have taken measures this year to stem the flow of refugees - including restricting access or closer management of borders and introducing onerous and complex requirements for refugees to extend their stay.
For the 4.08 million refugees already in neighbouring countries - the vast majority of whom live outside of formal camps - hope is also dwindling as they sinker deeper into abject poverty.
"I feel imprisoned here," said Hind, who lives with her husband and three young children in a storage unit in the northern Jordanian city of Mafraq after fleeing Damascus. Six months ago, their dwindling resources forced them to give up the apartment they were renting. "We don't go out, we don't do anything… We have lost any hope we had left for the future."
Recent studies in Jordan and Lebanon have found a marked increase in refugee vulnerability amidst funding shortfalls for refugee programmes. A UNHCR assessment in Jordan, where more than 520,000 Syrians are living outside the country's refugee camps, showed that 86 per cent of those in urban and rural areas are now living below the poverty line.
Having exhausted savings and other assets they once had, more than half of all refugee households there have high levels of debt and are taking increasingly extreme measures in order to cope. Many are eating less or sending family members - including children - out to beg.
A similar picture exists in Lebanon. The preliminary findings of a recent vulnerability study there found that 70 per cent of Syrian refugee households live far below the national poverty line - up from 50 per cent in 2014. Here too, more refugees are buying food on credit, withdrawing children from school and resorting to begging.
Against this backdrop, the World Food Programme has had to cut 229,000 refugees in Jordan from its food assistance this month - the latest in a series of reductions in food aid across the region this year due to severe funding shortfalls.
"I don't know how we will manage without the food vouchers," said Abu Abdullah, 48, from Aleppo, who now lives in Mafraq with his wife and 10 children. "We have already borrowed 3,000 JOD (US$4,230) just to pay the rent. We haven't eaten any meat for two months." Three of his daughters suffered severe burns when their house in Syria was shelled.
The Syria Refugee and Resilience Programme for 2015 is currently just 37 per cent funded. No sector of the aid programme is unaffected. Across the region, some 700,000 Syrian refugee children were out of school for the school year just passed. Very soon, many refugees who live in sub-standard shelters will face another winter in exile.
There are 4,088,099 registered Syrian refugees in countries neighbouring Syria, including 1,938,999 in Turkey, 1,113,941 in Lebanon, 629,266 in Jordan, 249,463 in Iraq, 132,375 in Egypt and 24,055 in several countries in North Africa. Only 12 per cent of refugees across the region live in formal refugee camps.
By Ariane Rummery in Geneva