Aid agencies say funding gap endangers Syrian refugees

BEIRUT (Reuters) - United Nations aid agencies said on Thursday that a $4.5 billion appeal to tackle the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015 was less than a quarter funded, putting millions of vulnerable people at risk, and had already led to cuts in vital assistance. The shortfall has meant 1.6 million refugees have had their food assistance cut this year and 750,000 children are not attending school, the agencies and partner organizations said, calling on countries to deliver on their pledges. "We are so dangerously low on funding that we risk not being able to meet even the most basic survival needs of millions of people over the coming six months," the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in the statement which represented more than 200 groups involved in the appeal. The refugee response plan is a $5.5 billion appeal, with $4.5 billion earmarked for U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations. An additional $1 billion is intended to help regional countries hosting refugees. Of the money for the agencies and NGOs only $1.06 billion had been received by the end of May, leaving a $3.47 billion funding gap, the statement said. It did not specify which donors had failed to deliver on their pledges. "If more funds are not forthcoming soon, up to 130,000 vulnerable families will not be provided with cash assistance to help them meet their basic needs and vulnerable people will stop receiving their monthly food vouchers altogether," it said. It warned that up to 1.7 million people may face winter this year without fuel, shelter, insulation, blankets or warm clothes. Last year refugees including children died during an especially fierce snowstorm that hit the region. Syria's conflict is now in its fifth year and has killed more than 220,000 people and displaced around half of the population. U.N. aid agencies have described it as one of the worst refugee crises since World War Two. The appeal predicts that there will be 4.27 million Syrian refugees in the region by the end of 2015 and the funds also aim to assist more than 20 million local people in communities hosting refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. As pressures on host countries continue to grow, it has become increasingly difficult for Syrians to find safety, including by seeking asylum, the statement said. "These difficulties have resulted in an increase in the number of Syrians seeking safety and refuge beyond the region, including by taking often dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean to try and reach Europe, " the statement said. "Many Syrians have lost their lives as a result." (Reporting by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Dominic Evans)