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Why is the UN World Food Program turning off aid to 1.7 million Syrian refugees?

December 2, 2014 at 6:45 PM EST
A severe cash shortage has forced the UN’s World Food Program to suspend food vouchers, immediately affecting 1.7 million Syrian refugees who are reliant on them for survival. Gwen Ifill spoke with Muhannad Hadi of the World Food Program about what the organization needs to provide December’s vouchers and why providing debit cards for groceries better serves some refugee populations.
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GWEN IFILL: Now to a funding crisis at the United Nations’s World Food Program. Yesterday, the organization announced that it can no longer provide food vouchers to more than a million-and-a-half Syrian refugees, even as winter approaches.

At a makeshift camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley last week, a Syrian refugee, one of 1,000 at this location, grimly assessed conditions after winter storms hammered the place where she’s lived for a year.

WOMAN (through interpreter): These tents don’t keep us warm. Even when lit, the heaters don’t keep us warm. I survive only thanks to the U.N. food vouchers. I don’t get anything else.

GWEN IFILL: But now those vouchers, a vital lifeline to so many, have been suspended by the U.N.’s World Food Program because of a severe cash shortage. That means 1.7 million Syrians living in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq face an immediate food shortage.

They’re part of an estimated 3.2 million Syrians spread across the Middle East. The WFP says donor countries failed to meet financial commitments, and it warned today of potentially dire consequences.

JANE HOWARD, Public Information officer, World Food Programme: We are expecting that people will maybe have to send their children out to work. They will have to skip meals. They will have to do without food. And what we are worried about is that some may even feel that they are forced to go back to Syria, even though their towns and villages are not necessarily safe.

GWEN IFILL: The U.N. agency got a cash infusion from the U.S. last week to cover November’s voucher operation. But it needs another $64 million for December. It’s the latest hard blow to refugees like this woman from Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.

KHALDIYEH MOHAMMAD ABBAS, (through interpreter): This is unfair. The Syrians do not deserve this. We fled our country from the ongoing war and hunger, and became refugees here. I have patience for one day without food, but my son cannot.

GWEN IFILL: The World Food Program also assists four million people inside Syria, and that program will run out of money in February.

I spoke earlier today with Muhannad Hadi, the World Food Program’s regional emergency coordinator. He was in Amman, Jordan.

Muhannad Hadi, thank you so much for joining us.

I want to start by asking about the suspension of the voucher program. How did we get to suspension?

MUHANNAD HADI, Regional Emergency Coordinator, World Food Programme: Well, basically, the suspension is a decision that the World Food Program has to take, simply for the lack of — for the lack of funding.

It’s a decision we were forced to take, unfortunately. And, as a result, we have more than 1.7 — more than 1.7 million people, refugees, lacking food this month, and the months after, if the situation doesn’t change.

GWEN IFILL: What is the value of food vouchers or these debit — this debit card system, as opposed to just handing out food directly to the recipients?

MUHANNAD HADI: The most important thing about this voucher program, that it keeps the dignity, it retains the dignity of the refugees, and it puts the decisions in their hands. They’re the ones who decide from where to do their shopping, what to buy.

It gives the mothers the right to decide what do they want to feed their children on any night for dinner. And it also resolves issues of protection and a lot of tension between local communities and the refugees. So it’s a preferred option. And this is the best way to serve the refugees in such circumstances.

GWEN IFILL: So explain the shortfall to me. Is it because they’re not — there’s not enough money being pledged or not enough pledges being fulfilled?

MUHANNAD HADI: Mainly not enough pledges being fulfilled.

As we know, in Kuwait conference, pledging conference, more than $2 billion were pledged, but, unfortunately, I think 40 percent of that has been committed. And we are running a big program in Syria. I mean, in Syria and in the neighboring countries, every — every month, we feed four million people inside Syria, in addition to approximately two million refugees in neighboring countries.

That’s a big program. We’re talking about six million people the World Food Program feeds every month. And on that, we need approximately $35 million a week to do this operation. This month only and in order to resume the operation for the refugees, we need $64 million immediately, but the beauty of the program that we have, if we get the money tonight.

But the beauty of the program that we have, if we get the money tonight, by tomorrow morning, we can charge and load the cards of the refugees, and they can start their grocery shopping as of tomorrow, so they will not miss a meal if we get funds immediately.

GWEN IFILL: Who are you counting on to fill this gap?  Are we talking about donor nations?  Are we talking about corporations, individuals?

MUHANNAD HADI: Well, we’re talking — we’re counting on everybody.

We’re counting on the United States. We’re counting on the big donors. And we’re also counting on the regional countries. We’re also approaching the GCC countries, Saudi Arabia, and everybody else. The crisis in Syria is not about Syria only and not even about the region anymore. It’s become an international crisis.

It has taken so long and the suffering of the people has also — has also increased. We are counting that the international community standing will stand by the Syrian people. The Syrian — the Syrian problem, the Syrian conflict is a political conflict. We are doing a humanitarian solution, in absence of a political solution.

And that’s why the humanitarian solution must be supported by the international community until the Syrian problem is resolved.

GWEN IFILL: But is there a connection to be made between food insecurity and stability, political stability in Syria and beyond?

MUHANNAD HADI: Right now, people have no choice.

The people who we are — whom we are feeding are totally dependent on the World Food Program to feed them, simply because they have no job opportunities. Their livelihoods have been destroyed. They’re either displaced within their own countries or refugees living in camps or in makeshift shelters or informal settlements in neighboring countries.

They have no access to the labor market. It’s — their lives have been destroyed. And until that situation is rectified somehow, the humanitarian operations must remain to support the Syrian people.

GWEN IFILL: Muhannad Hadi, the regional emergency coordinator for the World Food Program in Syria, thank you so much.

MUHANNAD HADI: Thank you.

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