As the Syria crisis enters its sixth year, it continues to impact the lives of millions of civilians inside Syria and beyond – 6.5 million internally displaced persons and 4.6 million registered refugees in the region.
Having worked for a humanitarian entity with a food security mandate for the past couple of years based in Jordan, I have witnessed the impact the crisis has had/is having on the food consumption patterns of Syrian refugees and how they have attempted to cope with external factors which have influenced aid delivery.
Donor funding always impacts the delivery of the humanitarian community. This year in particular, however, as resources dwindled, aid agencies responding to the Syrian conflict faced much hardship in maintaining the stability and predictability of their operations. To this avail, and as a way of utilizing the resources that were available efficiently, many had to reduce and/or completely halt their assistance temporarily to vulnerable Syrians seeking refuge in the countries neighboring Syria. As a result of these reductions, food security monitoring demonstrated that the proportion of refugees vulnerable to food insecurity almost doubled in the second half of 2015 compared to the first – a massive deterioration in the span of only six months.
Additional assessments were carried out in the second half of the year in Jordan and Lebanon to better gauge the critical role of food assistance on vulnerable Syrian refugee families:
– In Jordan, the same Syrian families living in Jordan’s communities who were temporarily excluded from assistance (as a result of limited funding) were interviewed before and during the cuts. One of the findings was that over 80% of these families had decreased their food consumption and three fouths engaged in more frequent and severe strategies to cope following the cuts. These strategies included withdrawing children from school, child labour, begging, borrowing money to purchase food and having adults reduce the number of meals they consumed each day to meet the food needs of their children.
– In Lebanon, during the time of reductions, it was observed that many refugee families had changed their behaviour in order to cope with the lack of suffiencient food – a linkage further supported when these same families reverted to their normal food consumption patterns once food assistance increased again (once some funding was made available).
These findings confirm that food assistance remains a vital tool in improving and stabilising refugees’ food security; and in mitigating the tremendously harmful impact of coping strategies on refugees’ wellbeing, particularly children.
The withdrawal of children from school to ensure that a family’s food needs are met underscores the innate linkages between education, food security and protection. Currently, almost a quarter of Syrian families in Jordan have withdrawn their children from school, while Egypt – a country whom had not experienced such an occurrence – observed 8% of its Syrians do this. Similarly, in Lebanon almost half of refugee households reduced expenditures on education, shelter and health to meet their food needs. Education-related expenses tend to represent transportation costs no longer incurred when a family withdraws their children from school, and health expenditures typically refer to medicine and doctor’s visits.
Aside from the utter desperation evident in the mechanisms of coping adopted, the fact that the direct victims in these cases are children of school going age is not only of concern for their future, but of detriment to the second Millenium Development Goal of universal primary education. By not attending school, children are less prone to be able to, in future, attain wage-earning jobs enabling them to support themselves and their family.
Other than enabling a family to prioritize its resources on needs such as food, the decision of taking children out of school is also a means of attaining an alternate income for some. At the end of 2015, more refugee families stated their children were involved in income generation activities in Jordan and Egypt; such as organized begging, harvesting, street vending, assistants to shop keepers, bakers – a 6% and 7% increase respectively compared to the beginning of the year.
No one should be made to decide between the education of their child or feeding their family – these are part of the basic rights of an individual. And yet, for many of the vulnerable Syrian families seeking refuse in the region, this is a reality. Aside from engaging in political negotiations and continuing advocacy with donors and host governments in regards to financing as massive a response as the one ongoing this moment, what is direly, urgently needed is for the humanitarian community to coordinate and communicate. Considering the protracted nature of the conflict, a focus on inter-sectoral programmes – which provide people in the need with three-dimentional assistance such as food and education at one – should be made a priority. But, for this to happen, agencies must destroy the silos they tend to work in and speak to each other to breech the gaps.