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GENEVA – 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 UNHCR’s efforts to continue providing humanitarian aid to displaced civilians, 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,” UNHCR reported on Tuesday.
“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.