With winter approaching, Congress must act to help Syrian refugees whose basic needs are threatened by the U.N. suspension of an urgent food assistance program, said a leading Catholic humanitarian agency. “The Syrian refugees’ situation is already dire, and resources are needed for education, livelihoods, health, and other needs; more funding is needed to avoid a full-scale humanitarian catastrophe,” Bill O’Keefe, Catholic Relief Services’ vice president for legislative affairs, said Dec. 1. “We urge Congress now to provide adequate funding for the Syrian refugees, as well as for other crises around the world.” The U.N. World Food Program on Dec. 1 announced the suspension of food assistance to 1.7 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt due to a lack of funds. The food program requires about $70 million each week to meet these refugees’ urgent needs, but many donor countries have not fulfilled their pledges. Ertharin Cousin, the World Food Program’s executive director, warned that the suspension of assistance will endanger refugees’ health and safety and could cause “further tensions, instability and insecurity in the neighboring host countries.” The shortfall in aid to over 1 million predominantly Sunni Syrian refugees in Lebanon could be particularly significant. Coexistence between Lebanese Sunnis, Shiites and Christians is already uneasy due to major political tensions over the Syrian conflict, in addition to threats of violence from the Islamic State group and the al-Qaida affiliate the al-Nusra Front. O’Keefe said that crises such as the Ebola outbreak in west Africa, the response to the expansion of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, and the response to unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S. border with Mexico have drawn away emergency funding. “The Ebola response alone threatens to significantly drain funding from many other programs globally, putting countless lives at risk, unless Congress acts,” he said. O’Keefe noted that short-term funding legislation for the federal government, including global disaster response programs, expires next week. “Syrian refugees and others in need deserve an effective response with continuity of funding,” he said. O’Keefe said Congress should pass funding for the entire 2015 fiscal year. President Barack Obama’s three emergency funding requests in the past six months, he said, “underscore the need for robust funding of humanitarian assistance.” The Syrian refugee crisis follows the 2011 outbreak of armed conflict between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and rebel groups after a violent government crackdown on protests. Over 200,000 people have been killed in the conflict and millions have fled their homes. The crisis further burdens efforts to help Iraqi refugees, many of whom had fled to Syria due to violence and a lack of security following the 2003 U.S.-led military invasion of Iraq. In late November, the United States Agency for International Development confirmed an additional $125 million to fund the food program’s Syrian refugee assistance, with $55 million going to those in need in Syria and $70 million for Syrian refugee assistance in neighboring countries. Refugees living in camps and other settlements are not prepared for the winter, especially in Jordan and Lebanon. Many children lack shoes and clothing for winter. Their tents and their ability to maintain hygiene are threatened by mud. The program cuts will also affect refugees living with relatives in towns and cities. “If the U.N. cuts assistance we are going to be in a very, very difficult situation. We are frightened. We are barely managing,” Amer Fahd Al Naser, a 38-year-old refugee from Homs, told CNA through a translator Oct. 27. Al Naser, who volunteers with the Catholic relief agency Caritas Jordan, has been in Jordan since September 2012. He lives with his wife, two sons, sister, and mother in an apartment in the Amman area. He said the situation of Syrian refugees in Jordan is “bad, going towards worse.” There are currently an unprecedented five “Level Three” emergencies, the World Food Program’s highest emergency level. In addition to the Syria refugee crisis, this level of emergency has been applied to Iraq, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Ebola-affected regions of west Africa. The food program receives no regular payments from the U.N. Rather, it is voluntarily funded primarily by member states of the United Nations.
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