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Aid groups warn of food crisis in Syria as winter nears, refugee numbers surge

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, at 5:14 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, at 7:06 p.m.

— The top U.S. aid official said Tuesday that Syria faces an immediate humanitarian emergency and that international plans to feed and support millions of destitute civilians have fallen short.

Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said that at least a million Syrians, forced from their homes by the national uprising and government bombing, would not have food and other vital basic support, and the number could be double that or more.

“The situation is now an emergency,” Shah told reporters during a conference call after visiting a refugee camp just inside Turkey’s border with Syria.

“Nearly 2.5 million people displaced from their homes require immediate support,” Shah said. But “global aid efforts are now reaching only 1.5 million.”

Meanwhile, a Turkish aid group that delivers food, tents and blankets to Syrians just across the border has warned of the danger of mass starvation in Syria this winter. Shah would not go that far but he acknowledged that his agency is preparing for “some very bad situations.”

He said the number of displaced – families that have been forced to move to the homes of friends or relatives, into public buildings or are living in tents or in the open – is “likely to be higher than 2.5 million.”

“Whether it’s 2.5, 3 or 4 million, there is a current shortfall,” he said.

Other estimates suggest that after 20 months of upheaval, the number of internally displaced could be far higher in the nation of 22 million. At least 750,000 Syrians have sought refuge abroad, according to officials of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.

Earlier this month, Turkey’s Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief Foundation warned that 10 million Syrians could go hungry this winter. The foundation is the principal Turkish charity providing aid across the border to Syria, according to Syrian aid volunteers, who say it supplies truckloads of food daily for Syrians living in the tent city close to the border as they wait for space in Turkish refugee camps.

The group warned on its website Nov. 9 that commercial life had come to a standstill in Syria and that food production had been affected deeply by the displacement of at least 2.5 million Syrians. Osman Atalay, the foundation’s director of operations, warned that a shortage of medicine, food, heating oil and diesel fuel would lead to hunger and possible outbreaks of epidemics.

“For 20 months, the world public has spoken of a Syrian political crisis,” he told McClatchy in an interview after posting the warning. “In fact, the humanitarian tragedy and the trauma on the people have been passed over.” He said he derived his 10 million estimate from Syrians who come to the border and request flour, yeast and other foodstuffs. “We receive dozens of phone calls from Syrians for food aid every day,” he said in a follow-up email.

The Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief Foundation has achieved fame – and in some quarters notoriety – for having sponsored the Mavi Marmara aid ship that tried to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2009. A Turkish court is currently trying four Israeli ex-commanders in absentia for Israel’s armed intervention, which left nine Turkish activists dead.

Shah, the USAID administrator, said he “had not heard the number 10 million as having any immediate credibility.” But he said the United States was “preparing for a range of scenarios” including “much more dire situations” than the present.

The World Food Program, the main U.N. agency responsible for delivering international food to Syria, said that 4 million people will need assistance by early next year. World Food Program spokeswoman Abeer Etefa told McClatchy that most commodities are available in the Syrian market, though at higher prices, but that basic grains, cooking gas and fuel were in short supply.

“Wheat is still available, but is dwindling by the day, especially in areas where clashes are taking place,” Etefa said in an email. State-subsidized bread is now “hardly available” in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and people are “widely relying on private bakeries for their daily bread consumption.”

The Assad regime is reported to have bombed more than a dozen private bakeries.

In response to shortages, higher prices and limited finances, Syrian households are cutting back consumption, Etefa said, reducing the number of meals, consuming cheaper or lower quality food, reducing the size of meals, taking children out of school, sending children – including young daughters – to work, selling livestock and other assets, and cutting back medical and education expenses.

The Turkish government also is relying on the U.N. estimates of 4 million Syrians in distress. But a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said that because Syria will not have a real harvest this year, the numbers could climb.

Atalay of Turkish relief foundation said that regardless of the U.N. estimates, his organization would stick to its number. “If the official figures say 4 million, you should take it as 8 (million),” he said in an email. “At the least, we should consider twice this figure as being closer to reality, since outside observers can only reach a limited number of people.”

Shah told reporters that the Obama administration was committed to doing “everything we could to address the humanitarian needs inside of Syria.” But he brought no new pledge of funds beyond the $200 million already announced. He said the United States was providing “winterization kits” for 400,000 Syrians, medical support programs that reached 300,000 and support for the World Food Program that enabled it to reach 1.2 million Syrians.

Shah was unable to say whether his organization was in touch with the IHH, the Turkish group that aids Syrians across the border. “We are operating and in touch with a broad range of partners,” he said. “There are a lot of NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) out there that are trying to do effective work in respecting basic humanitarian principles.”

Email: rgutman@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @RoyGutmanMcC

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