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In 2024, Syrians receive less aid amid rising poverty

February 23, 2024

More and more aid programs for Syria's northwest region are being reduced or discontinued, exacerbating the situation for millions in refugee camps.

Syrian woman sits in a tent in the refugee camp Maarat Misrin in the rebel-held Idlib region
Hanaa A. has been living as a internally displaced person in a Syrian refugee camp for five yearsImage: Omar Albam/DW

For five years, Hanaa A., her children and grandchildren have been living in a refugee camp in Maarat Misrin, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) north of Idlib, a city in northern Syria.

The refugee camp is built on unpaved ground that gets so muddy in winter that people almost get stuck when walking. In summer, on the other hand, the tents get so hot that you can hardly bear being inside, residents told DW. Hanaa A. and her 14 family members live in cramped tents and have no access to running water.

"Our situation is bad. The tents are not watertight, and the washing facilities are very limited," the 55-year-old told DW. "I'm a widow and need to care for everything on my own."

Life used to be better for the family. In the past, that was when their hometown, Maarat al-Numan, in the Idlib governorate, was still under the control of the resistance and had not yet been recaptured by the Syrian regime. Her husband was still alive then — he was killed in Russian and Syrian attacks during the escape from Maarat al-Numan.

A Syrian child stands next to a tent in a refugee camp in Maarat Misrin.
The family of 15 live in cramped tents without access to running water in the refugee camp where they depend on humanitarian aidImage: Omar Albam/DW

The province of Idlib is largely the last region held by Syrian rebels and Islamists. It is predominantly under the control of Islamist militias, in particular the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, which emerged from the al-Qaeda-affiliated so-called Nusra Front.

Escape into the unknown

Leaving behind their own home, their memories, their whole life and the certainty of having enough food on the table was not easy for Hanaa A. and her family. Today, they no longer have that certainty.

"Everything has become expensive, and we receive less aid from international organizations," the Syrian woman told DW. 

Of the 4.5 million people in northwest Syria, 2.9 million are internally displaced. Around 2 million of them live in refugee camps, mostly on the border with Turkey.

These camps lack basic supplies, and local organizations are barely able to keep up with the assistance of refugees.

"The situation in this part of Syria has deteriorated," Abdullah al-Kumait, an employee of the local aid organization Molham Team, told DW. "The people here are very reliant on aid from the United Nations, yet this has been reduced."

Aerial perspective on a Syrian refugee camp with muddy ground.
The refugee camp is built on unpaved ground, making it hard to walk after rainfall or in winterImage: Omar Albam/DW

Dwindling aid

Thirteen years of civil war, which is still ongoing, Syria's difficult economic situation and the February 2023 earthquake have left over 90% of the 4.5 million people in the country's northwest dependent on international aid.

Furthermore, the shelling and attacks by the Syrian and Russian military have killed dozens of people and displaced more than 100,000 since August 2023.

The UN was only able to secure 37% of the $5.3 billion (€4.9 billion) needed for its 2023 humanitarian response in Syria, David Carden, the UN's deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis,  told The Associated Press news agency during a visit to northwestern Syria in late January.

Due to severe financial constraints, the UN World Food Program was also forced to suspend its food aid throughout Syria as of January, with disastrous consequences for the population, especially in the northwestern refugee camps.

There, Hanaa A. regularly received a box of staple foods from the UN, such as rice, flour and lentils. 

"We really feel the lack of this food, and buying it in the quantities we need is expensive. Unfortunately, I don't have a job either," she said.

Rising inflation and increasing unemployment are further exacerbating the situation. Many people now find it almost impossible to meet their basic needs. Not only is food in short supply, but medicines and urgently needed medical care are also scarce.

Increasing malnutrition rates

Donor fatigue and increasing crises in other parts of the world are also causing funding problems for aid programs.

"Acute hunger remains at record levels in today's post-pandemic world, and yet, humanitarian funding has returned to pre-pandemic levels," Martin Penner, WFP's spokesperson, told DW. "Almost half of WFP country operations have already cut the size and scope of food, cash and nutrition assistance this year."

Penner has observed that this situation is not unique to WFP. It rather reflects the new, more challenging financial landscape of the entire humanitarian sector.

To reduce the risk of donor fatigue, to support the Syrian civil society and to further promote UN efforts, the EU already launched conferences to "Support the Future of Syria and the Region" in 2017.

International pledges totaling €5.6 billion were made in 2023: €4.6 billion for 2023, but only €1 billion for 2024.

It's a drop in the ocean, considering that the World Bank estimates that the 2023 earthquake alone caused almost €5 billion worth of damage in northern Syria.

A Syrian woman stands outside tents in a refugee camp.
Hanaa A. can't feed her family since aid programs were suspended in January and she was cut off from basic suppliesImage: Omar Albam/DW

"People actually need more help now than before, not less!" said al-Kumait of the Molham Team aid group.

For now, WFP at least plans to continue assisting children under the age of 5 and pregnant and nursing mothers through nutrition programs, children in school and learning centers through its school meals program and farming families through its livelihood support program.

"WFP will continue supporting families affected by emergencies and natural disasters across the country through smaller, time-bound and more targeted emergency response interventions," Ross Smith, WFP deputy country director in Syria, told DW.

For now, however, Hanaa A. and her family don't benefit from this help. She doesn't know how she will feed herself and her family without any help or income of her own.

Syria's nightmare continues 1 year after deadly earthquakes

This article was translated from German by Jennifer Holleis.