Syria crisis: Will donor fatigue push refugees back too soon?

Taylor Luck
Syrian and Jordanian children learn how to wash their hands at a hygiene tutorial at a UNICEF-supported Makani center in north Amman. Amid funding cuts for Syrian refugees, 100 of these centers have been closed.

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To forward-thinking humanitarian organizations and their donors, postwar reconstruction of Syria sounds like a good idea. In fact, several groups that have partnered with the United Nations have begun redirecting their priorities away from caring for refugees and toward Syria’s stabilization. The flow of donor interest has even led several NGOs to float tenders for projects within Syria. “The new buzzword is ‘reconstruction,’ and everyone wants a piece of the pie,” says an aid worker. “Refugees in donors’ minds are old news.” In Jordan, that diverting of funds has meant serious cuts in aid to refugees, who are losing assistance for housing, food, and children’s schooling. Yet UN officials warn that conditions in Syria are not yet conducive for the return of millions, many of whom have been targeted by their own government. And some refugees say their choice is between poverty and a fearful environment. Says Stefan Severe, representative for the UN’s refugee agency in Jordan: “We don’t want to push refugees back into Syria before it and they are ready, and we don’t want to leave vulnerable Syrians in host countries without vital support.”

Why We Wrote This

Solving a problem on the order of the Syrian refugee crisis requires patience. It's taken years to find ways to support both the displaced families and their host countries, and rebuilding will take time.

Yusra Ajaj is facing a life or death decision.

A widowed mother of three, Ms. Ajaj is considering leaving Jordan, the country she has called home since war consumed her homeland and killed her husband in 2013.

After nearly five years, her life is once again in upheaval. In April, the United Nations stopped her monthly cash assistance of $210, which she relied upon to pay rent. Then in September, the UN cut her monthly $175 in food vouchers, which she had recently resorted to selling on the black market in order to pay her bills.

Why We Wrote This

Solving a problem on the order of the Syrian refugee crisis requires patience. It's taken years to find ways to support both the displaced families and their host countries, and rebuilding will take time.

Now Ajaj is faced with what she describes as “two worst cases” – poverty and homelessness in Jordan, or return to Syria. Worse still, she says the decision is being made for her.

“I fear that the international community is trying to push us back into Syria,” Ajaj says as she enters the offices of a Jordanian NGO in the northern city of Mafraq to ask for cash assistance.

Across Jordan and Lebanon, Syrian refugees are finding their assistance cut, medical aid suspended, and educational programs axed as international donor fatigue sets in over the Syrian crisis. The UN and its partner agencies across the Middle East are being hit hard.

Yet despite a new push by humanitarian organizations to focus on reconstruction in Syria and encourage refugee returns, UN officials warn that conditions there are not yet stable or conducive for a mass return of the 5 million Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries.

Instead, they warn, the cuts in aid will leave tens of thousands of families deep in poverty in host countries unable to support them.

A snowball effect

In late September, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), which has taken the lead in providing life-saving and sustaining assistance to 5.6 million Syrian refugees across the Middle East, issued an urgent appeal for $270 million by the end of the month.

If it did not receive these funds, it warned, it would have to suspend services for millions of refugees, including cash assistance to 456,000 vulnerable Syrians in Jordan and Lebanon.

This money is used for rent and food, crucial for the 80 percent of Syrian refugees who live in urban areas and not camps and are under the poverty line.

“If we stop this assistance, then thousands of families cannot pay the rent, and this will create a devastating snowball effect in host communities,” says Stefan Severe, UNHCR’s Jordan representative.

The shortfall is not a blip, but the latest sign of endemic shortages. As of late September, the entire UNHCR budget for the Syrian crisis of $1.97 billion was 35 percent funded for 2018. Other UN agencies and its partners face similar deficits.

Funding for UNICEF Jordan, which supports Jordanian schools and educational programs, is down significantly even as the number of Syrian students is rising.

“If funding continues to reduce at this pace, we will continue to make difficult choices and minimize the impact on the most vulnerable children,” says UNICEF Jordan Representative Robert Jenkins. “But we cannot completely protect them.”

Keeping kids in school

One of the first casualties was the hajati program, under which UNICEF provided $28 a month to vulnerable Syrian students to help pay for transportation, uniforms, and even shoes to attend school. The program aims to encourage some of the 90,000 Syrian children estimated to be out of school in Jordan to attend class.

The hajati program helped 50,000 Syrian students last school year; because of cuts, UNICEF reduced the number of beneficiaries to 10,000 for 2018/19, after which it is expected to stop altogether.

Also in the crosshairs is Makani, after-school centers that provide day-long tutoring, life skills, counseling, remedial education, kindergarten, and safe spaces for Syrian and Jordanian children to play and interact. For many, the Makani centers offer their only hope for education.

One such student is Mohammed, 15, who has gone six years without a full semester of school. When he was nine, his primary school was bombed by Syrian war planes. He fled to Jordan with his mother, uncle, and siblings after his father was killed and began four years of bouncing between refugee camps and shared apartments near industrial zones.

Now he cannot enter a Jordanian school, and for good reason: he cannot read or write. 

“I just want to be able to read street signs and store signs and maps,” Mohammed says in between remedial classes at a Makani center. “I want to know where I am going in life, and how to get back home…. If I can read and write, I can go to school. And if I go to school, my future will not be lost.”

Mohammed and hundreds of others like him stand to lose out as UNICEF has cut the number of its Makani centers from 200 across Jordan down to 100 centers this year. The program is in doubt beyond this year.

Syria reconstruction

The funding for these programs in Jordan has diminished as several humanitarian organizations that have partnered with the UN have begun redirecting their priorities away from refugees and toward the stabilization of Syria.

The flow of donor interest and funds from refugees to reconstruction has led several NGOs to float tenders for projects within Syria and create new positions for foreigners to head up “Syria” operations.

“The new buzzword is ‘reconstruction,’ and everyone wants a piece of the pie,” an aid worker who was not authorized to speak to the press says on the condition of anonymity. “Refugees in donors’ minds are old news.”

Yet UN officials warn that talk of refugee returns is very premature.

While Jordan saw 17,000 Syrian refugees return to their homeland in 2017, the rate slowed to 1,770 returns from January 2018 through September and no verified voluntary returns to Syria since June.

Despite a drive by the Lebanese government to encourage and facilitate its 1 million Syrian refugees to return home, both a lack of trust on the part of refugees and restrictions by the Syrian government have limited repatriations to a few thousand.

On the recently reopened Jordanian-Syrian border, meanwhile, a much publicized restoration of trade and passenger traffic has triggered a slow but steady trickle of Syrians travelling back to their homeland. Jordanian authorities reported that 108 refugees traveled back to Syria over the first five days the border was open.

Too soon to relocate

However, most Syrians traveling at the border tell a visiting reporter that they are going for family visits. Relocation, they say, is still not an option.

“We are so happy to have the chance to see family we could cry,” says Abu Ahmed, a Syrian heading to Damascus. “But we remain residents of Jordan and will for the future.”

And the UN insists that the conditions in Syria are not yet conducive for the return of millions, many of whom have been targeted by their own government.

“We don’t want to push refugees back into Syria before it and they are ready, and we don’t want to leave vulnerable Syrians in host countries without vital support,” says Mr. Severe of the UNHCR.

Jordanian officials recognize that conditions are not yet right for mass returns; many here fear that the international community will begin to redirect resources away from refugees prematurely, leaving host countries like Jordan and Lebanon to carry a burden that some liken to a social “time-bomb.”

Facing the cuts to assistance programs in the cities, thousands of Syrians are already returning to under-funded refugee camps in Jordan in search of free shelter and medical care.

UN experts warn the cut in aid could result in thousands of children dropping out of school to work and a spike in child marriages, crime, human trafficking, and exploitation.

“I don’t know what to do,”  the widowed Ms. Ajaj says after leaving the Jordanian NGO empty-handed, tears forming in her eyes. Unwilling to go back to Syria, unable to live in Jordan, the only answer, she says, may be putting her children on a migrant boat to Europe.

“We are out of options and out of hope,” she says, wiping her eyes. “What would you do?”

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