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Syria Aid Cost Jumps as UN Food Agency Seeks More Donors

Syrian Refugees
Internally displaced Syrian youths hold empty pots as they line up for food distribution in the Maiber al-Salam refugee camp along the Turkish border. Photographer: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations agency feeding millions of Syrians affected by that country’s civil war said the cost of funding one of the world’s biggest humanitarian efforts is surging faster than the number of donors.

The World Food Programme needs $462 million for the first three months of next year, as the number of Syrians it targets rises to almost 6 million people in the country and its neighbors, Executive Director Ertharin Cousin said. The Rome-based agency has spent about $890 million this year on the crisis and has funds that will only cover most of its needs until December, she said in an interview in Dubai on Oct. 21.

“We have nothing come January,” Cousin said. “We are going into the winter months and it becomes ever more important that we keep the pipeline filled with the commodities necessary to support people, because in Syria the winter is very brutal.”

The conflict pitting President Bashar al-Assad’s army against hundreds of rebel groups has killed more than 100,000 people, according to UN estimates, and rendered parts of the country inaccessible to aid workers. Attacks on WFP convoys have prevented the organization from reaching the town of Muadhamiya near Damascus for almost a year, Cousin said.

The town is one of the areas visited by chemical-weapons inspectors after an Aug. 21 attack that the U.S. and opposition groups say killed more than 1,400 people. An agreement between the U.S. and Russia to dismantle Syria’s arsenal averted an American military strike against the forces of Assad, who denies responsibility for the attack.

‘Safe Passage’

“The government tells us, ‘We are with you, you should have access into those areas but we don’t want your people to get injured,’” Cousin said. “We want the government to have conversations with their representatives at the different check-points to provide safe passage to the besieged areas.” Access to some opposition-controlled areas is also restricted.

About 2 million Syrians have registered as refugees or are pending registration, with an average of almost 5,000 people fleeing into neighboring countries each day, the UN High Commission on Refugees said in September.

The number of displaced people the WFP is targeting inside Syria has risen to about 4 million from 250,000 since Cousin took charge of the agency in April 2012, as violence combined with higher inflation left more people without access to food.

‘Every Dollar’

“We spend every dollar that comes in,” said Cousin, who headed the U.S. mission to the Rome-based UN agencies before joining the WFP. “We have not reduced rations. We have not cut the number of people that we’re serving through the vouchers.”

The organization’s pool of donors isn’t expanding enough beyond regular contributors such as the U.S., the U.K., Japan and Kuwait, she said. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, among the biggest backers of rebels fighting Assad, mostly focus on direct and bilateral support.

The WFP has only received a shipment of dates from Saudi Arabia along with the funds needed for their distribution among Syrians, and is in talks with Qatar, Cousin said.

“This is an expanding crisis in the Arab world and we are not seeing the generosity that we know is so much a part of the culture of the Arab people,” she said.

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