Dying fast or dying slowly: food aid and migration

 

Before taking his family on the passage from Jordan to Europe, Mounib Zakiya told the BBC “Its better to die fast on the journey, than die slowly, watching your kids starve.” He lived in Jordan for three years after fleeing the Syrian civil war.  His family was among many Syrian refugees affected by significantly reduced food rations in 2015.  The World Food Program (WFP) was underfunded  that year by 63 percent and calls to governments around the world for assistance were not met with the needed support.  2015 was the second year in a row in which the WFP did not receive its needed funding, in spite of a  worldwide increase in humanitarian assistance .

The cuts to Syrian refugees were significant.  In Lebanon, food vouchers were cut in half  to US$13.50 per person per month.  In Jordan, 230,000 Syrian refugees living outside of camps lost their food aid entirely.  As a result, families were forced to make impossible decisions in order to survive -taking children out of school, skipping meals, going into debt, or fleeing to Europe.

The WFP’s reduced aid drastically influenced a wave of Syrian refugees from Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey to Europe in 2015.  By foot and by boat, they flooded into Greece and the Balkans countries in search of refuge, risking dangerous travel and an uncertain future rather than remain and starve.

 

Lessons not learned

The take-away from the experience of mass Syrian migration – that maintaining food rations is important in keeping refugees and migrants in the place of refuge closest to their country – appears to have been forgotten.  The World Food Program recently announced another shortfall in funding that would require it to reduce rations across a number of African countries hosting refugees.  In Uganda, which hosts 600,000 refugees and asylum seekers from Burundi, South Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda and Congo, those who arrived before 2015 had their rations cut by 50%.

Assisting refugees to remain within their region makes sense for a number of reasons:

  • Those who are physically proximate to their place of origin can more easily return when peace is restored
  • It prevents refugees from making dangerous journeys across oceans or deserts without adequate preparation or protection.
  • There will be less need for human traffickers who financially benefit from their movement.
  • It reduces the number of people trying to migrate to Europe or other northern countries to try their luck with the international asylum system.

Massive forced migration is not good for anyone. The further away from home people need to go for safety the farther they are from their houses, farms, businesses and the local information that they need to make an informed decision to return.  In 2015 alone, 65 million people were displaced as a result of violence, enough to form a country the size of France.  Enabling people to remain in areas closer to home is a pragmatic international response that is in the best interests of all.  However, it comes at a price, which is the assistance that people need to live in places of refuge.

 

Dr. Sandra Joireman is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Richmond and Chair of the Board of Directors of Bread for the World.  You can follow her on twitter @joireman or www.sandrajoireman.com.

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