UK 'puts lives at risk' by cutting aid to Syria by third

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The United Nations says the humanitarian needs of Syrians are greater today than ever after 10 years of war - AP
The United Nations says the humanitarian needs of Syrians are greater today than ever after 10 years of war - AP

The UK cut humanitarian funding to Syria by nearly a third at a major United Nations donor conference on Tuesday, a reduction which aid agencies working in the conflict-wracked country said “will put lives at risk”.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab promised at least £205 million in aid during an international conference on supporting Syria hosted by Brussels. Last year the UK pledged £300m and in 2019 it gave £400m.

After 10 years of war, Syria’s humanitarian needs have never been greater, according to the United Nations, which is seeking a record $10 billion this year to help 12.3 million people in Syria and another 5.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt.

Germany led pledges at the two-day video conference by promising a record 1.74 billion euros, while the United States pledged $600 million and France promised 560 million euros. Qatar said it would contribute $100 million.

"The Syrian tragedy must not last another 10 years. Ending it begins by restoring hope. It begins with our commitments - here, today," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.

Addressing the conference, Mr Raab said that the UK had given £3.5bn to help Syrians since 2012.

The UK’s reduction was not as great as some aid organisations had feared but came despite direct pleas from the United Nations not to cut assistance to Syria.

“A decision to turn away from Syria today will come back to bite us all tomorrow,” the United Nations aid chief Mark Lowcock told the Guardian last week. “In 2014 our appeal was poorly funded. In 2015 there was a huge exodus of people from Syria to Europe.”

On Monday, Mr Mark Lowcock told the Security council that the consequences of reduced aid “could be dramatic and widespread.”

The need for aid has increased amid the coronavirus pandemic and the collapsing value of the Syrian pound, the UN said.

Conditions are deteriorating for Syrians, according to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. "More than 13 million people need humanitarian assistance to survive this year," he said. "That's over 20 percent more than last year, and the majority of the population is now facing hunger."

The decision to slash the aid budget to Syria by a third will put lives at risk, according to a joint statement by nine major NGOs working in Syria, including the International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Action Against Hunger UK, Care International UK, Islamic Relief UK, Christian Aid, Syria Relief and CAFOD.

“This decision risks the lives of 210,000 Syrians who rely on UK aid for food every month, as well as the 100,000 Syrian refugees in the region who depend on UK aid for clean water and sanitation,” the statement said.

Already over 90 percent of Syrians are living in poverty, 12.4 million are suffering from food insecurity, and 12.2 million lack regular access to clean water.

Responding to the UK reduction in funding, some aid agencies complained that they were unable to plan programming without concrete forewarning of the aid cuts, which come a month before the start of the new financial year.

“Taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going and currently these decisions are subject to little or no scrutiny,” said Jean-Michel Grand, executive director of Action Against Hunger UK.

In November, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a £5bn cut to aid – from 0.7 per cent of gross national income to 0.5 per cent – saying that at a time of "unprecedented crisis the government must make tough choices".

“This cut is yet another reminder of the catastrophic consequences of the Government’s decision to break its promise to maintain the aid budget at 0.7 percent of national income and they must urgently rethink this approach,” said Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children UK.

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