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Food Security and the Refugee Crisis

By Ertharin Cousin
Executive Director, World Food Programme

WFP.E_Cousin.AgriSection.PortraitMr. President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentleman.

Thank you for drawing the world’s attention back to the victims of Syria’s ongoing conflict.
Since the beginning of this crisis, the World Food Programme has worked to address the daily food and nutrition needs of 4 million people inside Syria and of 2.3 million people outside Syria.

In 2012, I made my first visit to Jordan’s Zaatari Refugee Camp. WFP was there working with our partners to provide hot meals to those arriving and monthly food rations to the 17,000 Syrians then calling the camp home.

As I was walking through the camp I met women who had walked for miles carrying small children in search of shelter, food, and safety. I met children who had already been out of school for weeks, for months – and this was in 2012.  I met husbands and fathers who were angry! Angry because conflict had forced them to leave their farms, their livestock, or their small business.  Angry because they could now only feed their families by standing in lines for food, water and bread.

Because we recognized the importance of bread in the diets of Syrian families, we also began baking and distributing 130,000 pieces of pitta bread per day in addition to our usual rations.

A man began following me through the camp and shouting at me in Arabic. I asked the translator to find out what the man was shouting.  He began shouting louder and crumbling a piece of the bread in his hand. The translator said “He is angry about the bread.” “He asks if you would feed this terrible bread to your children.”

I said, “Ask him what is wrong with the bread.” The man shouted back to me and the growing crowd, “This is Jordanian bread, not Syrian bread!” He shouted “This is not our bread! This is bad bread!”  I asked “What was his business in Syria?”  He said, “I am a Syrian baker!”

The next day – and every day since – that man and other Syrian refugee bakers worked with our team in Zaatari to produce the right bread. We have since baked and distributed more than 360 million pieces of the right bread, Syrian bread. Bread represents the importance of getting the response right, avoiding a humanitarian response further complicating the already challenging political issues.

The WFP Syrian response team is working across the region to meet the food and nutrition needs of the most vulnerable victims of the Syrian crisis. In the five neighboring countries, we are working outside Syria to serve refugees in both the camps like Zaatari as well as refugees hosted by community neighborhoods. And we are working inside Syria to serve the displaced in opposition- as well as in regime-held areas.

Excellencies, as you well know, the longer this crisis continues, its victims become ever more vulnerable.
The more people suffer and die from starvation and malnutrition, stunted child development, deprived of nutrition they suffer from long term consequences of deteriorating health and broad despair.
Those inside Syria’s highest-priority districts – with the highest concentration of displaced people – live without livelihoods, without an income, unable to meet their basic needs.

Before the conflict began Syria was a net food exporter, but drought and conflict have put food increasingly out of reach.  Food is harder to produce, harder to import. Inside Syria, wheat is twice as expensive as it was before the crisis.  Rice, four times as expensive. Bread prices are up 55 percent.

As a result any food available, is – too often, for too many – inaccessible.  6.8 million people require critical food assistance. More than half a million more than this time last year.

The decline in food security and the destruction and weakening of water and health services have created a serious nutritional crisis. Four million Syrian women and children require preventative and curative nutrition services.

Families face and make impossible decisions to find and access food. Parents pull their children out of school to search for work. Food becomes part of negotiations to marry off young daughters or release children to fight in armed groups.

Gandhi said “to the mother of a hungry child, a piece of bread is the face of God.” Gandhi was right.  We cannot let that piece of bread be delivered by an extremist.

We regularly monitor to ensure the appropriate distribution of WFP food.

Despite our diligence, we did have one widely reported incident where a small amount food WFP was stolen by ISIS and distributed with much publicity on social media.

Inside Syria negotiating humanitarian access to besieged areas can involve up to 50 parties. Determining which routes to take, the times to go, the quantities to be delivered, and even the land mines to avoid can take anything from ten days to ten months.

Where we reach today, we too often cannot reach tomorrow. Idleb and Ar-Raqqa — once regularly accessible — are now unreachable, even with air bridges.

This council enabled us to make regular, cross-line, and cross-border deliveries. In fact last month alone we were able to reach an additional 528,000 people using the border crossings provided through resolution 2165.

Expanding cross-border activities depends not only on our ability to safely cross but also on our adequate financial resources.

Our 2015 plan is to reach 4 million people inside Syria, and 2.3 million more outside, but funding shortfalls are putting this already limited assistance in jeopardy.

Current funding commitments do not reflect the humanitarian needs of this prolonged conflict.
Because of funding shortfalls, we have been forced to cut the family food basket inside of Syria by 30 percent. Those cuts have a significant nutritional impact and can lead to Protein Energy Malnutrition.

Funding shortfalls also limit plans like those with UNICEF to reach pregnant and lactating women and to provide an integrated school feeding program.

If we fail to provide the school meals which bring children back to school and keep them in school, we will miss the opportunity to teach them different lessons than this conflict teaches.

As this council knows and as the High Commissioner highlighted, the Syrian refugee crisis threatens stability across the region.

In the five neighbouring countries, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon, refugees now compete with their hosts for homes, for employment, for water, and for food.

I must warn this Council: when we reduce food access operations we shift the burden from the international community to host communities and governments.

Communities like those in Jordan where participation in the Regional Voucher Programme, which provides choice to the beneficiary and cash to businesses in host communities has been severely limited… 190,000 Syrian refugees living in extreme poverty now receive food assistance worth just $28 dollars per person per month.

We have been forced to cut assistance by half for almost a quarter of a million more refugees living in absolute poverty.  Now, they must try to feed their families on $14 per person per month. Limiting their ability to purchase nutritious food.

We also made cuts in Lebanon, where the refugee crisis has increased unemployment and overstretched national health, education and infrastructure services.  A decrease in targeted donor funding forced us to reduce not only the number of people served but the level of assistance we provide to those we serve.

We will also cut the number of people we serve in Egypt, Iraq, and Turkey.

Over the course of this month, 400,000 refugees across the entire region will be completely cut from our food purchase program.

When we announced the reductions in Jordan our hotlines were overwhelmed. Thousands of appeal calls come in each day. Calls from families that have exhausted their resources and feel abandoned… by us all. One woman told us, “I cannot stay… if I cannot feed my children.”

Families like hers consider once-unthinkable options: returning to Syria or illegally trying to make the dangerous cross into Europe.

Without reliable access to food, people become easy targets for traffickers and for extremists.
Without reliable access to food, this region and its children are in danger.

Excellencies, this conflict rages on without a political solution.

Inside Syria, we ask all parties to provide the necessary humanitarian access—the Government of Syria as well and the opposition groups as well as the extremist actors.

And we ask for your support.  Because, despite important improvements in access facilitated by this council and member states, we need to do more.

We must maintain essential lifesaving food access and nutrition programmes including the necessary funding.
And we must make sure we meet the nutritional and educational needs of Syria’s children.

To avoid lack of access to food becoming a political issue… the length and complexity of this crisis means we must increase not reduce financial investments in food and nutritional assistance.

Ladies and gentlemen, until we deliver the political solutions that create peace.  We must implement the humanitarian solutions that create hope and stability across the region.

Failure to do so will haunt us all for decades to come.

We cannot ask parents to raise their children in a region without food, a region without peace.

We cannot leave parents to pull their children out of school to search for food, for work, for protection from armed groups.

We cannot expect parents to raise children in a region where picking up a gun is easier than picking up a book.

Without your support, there will be no food security and without food security there is no security.
We can do better.
We must do better.
Thank you.

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