UN shifts focus to ‘non-visible’ Syrian refugees

Panos Moumtzis, United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Libya. Photo by: Jean-Marc Ferré / U.N.

More than 70 percent of the nearly 640,000 Syrian refugees who have fled ongoing political violence are now dispersed in urban areas in neighboring countries. This population will be the focus of the United Nations’ humanitarian response, a regional refugee coordinator told Devex.

It marks a shift in focus from the work the U.N. refugee agency has carried out last year, when it coordinated U.N. agencies in providing $248 million in emergency aid to refugees mostly in camps in Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey.

“We want to focus a lot more on the non-camp refugees in urban settings, because these people are – I don’t want to say hidden – but they are non-visible in communities,” the regional refugee coordinator, Panos Moumtzis, said in response to a Devex question during a closed media briefing at U.N. headquarters on Thursday (Jan. 17).

UNHCR is now rolling out a new country assistance program in Jordan and Lebanon, where an estimated 206,666 refugees live with host families in cities, to provide refugees with an ATM card. People can use the card to withdraw money from an ATM machine to pay their rent or purchase food.

“It’s a quite dignified way,” said Moumtzis of the support initiative, who noted that it is being executed with the support of local partners.

Moumtzis, recently back from a trip to Jordan, offered a bleak account of the humanitarian crisis, amidst a worsening political situation, and the struggle to keep pace with the growing Syrian refugee population.

“We feel that the speed with which the humanitarian crisis is deteriorating is much bigger, faster than the donor community’s ability to fund it,” Moumtzis said. “We are emptying what we have and restocking very quickly and it is a race, really.”

The United Nations is requesting $1.04 billion to fund the needs of the Syrian refugee population, which it conservatively expects to grow to 1.1 million people by June. That amount is the largest the U.N. has ever requested during a six-month time period, Moumtzis said, and is causing the agency to consider the importance of non-traditional donors, like the governments of the Gulf states.

An upcoming international donor conference in Kuwait could be a key-determining factor to help move the United Nations along in meeting its unmet funding targets, Moumtzis told Devex. Last year, Gulf states collectively pledged $250 million toward Syria. So far, donor governments have pledged 5 percent of the required $1.04 billion to supply aid from now until June.

In 2012, the United Nations met 51 percent of its funding targets for aid inside Syria, and 69 percent of its regional targets.

Yet Moumtzis said he is also cognizant of other humanitarian crises – like the situations in Mali, South Sudan and the Horn of Africa – and the needs, as well, of the people affected by them.

“The concern we have is that… we are worried what ends up is unmet needs,” he told media.

Moumtzis described the Syrian refugee emergency as a women and children’s crisis – more than 75 percent of the refugees are women and children, and 50 percent are children. The stories people bring with them across the border they traverse on foot, he said, are “horrible stories of survival and fear.”

He described one Syrian woman who crossed into Jordan on last month holding the hands of her two sons. She waited, as other people boarded buses, for a third son, who she said was walking behind.

“But then the body was brought up,” Moumtzis recalled. “These stories are just unbelievable. I still hear her screams when the body was brought up.”

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About the author

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    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is an award-winning journalist based in New York City. Her coverage on politics, social justice issues, development and climate change has appeared in a variety of international news outlets, including The Guardian, Slate and The Atlantic. She has reported from the U.N. Headquarters, in addition to nine countries outside of the U.S. Amy received her master of arts degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2014. Last year she completed a yearlong fellowship on the oil industry and climate change and co-published her findings with a team in the Los Angeles Times.