By Bernhard Schell
AMMAN (IDN) – Highlighting the increasingly dire situation in countries across the Middle East, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has warned that “deep humanitarian needs will worsen and new ones will emerge if the international community doesn’t factor socio-economic aftershocks into our response and protect livelihoods and food security”.
The ICRC is, therefore, calling for social protection programs to be maintained or increased, including the most vulnerable, such as low-income workers, households headed by women, farmers and people with disabilities. Existing humanitarian activities focused on food security and nutrition must also be reinforced.
The Swiss-based ICRC is an independent, neutral organization ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence. It acts in response to emergencies and at the same time promotes respect for international humanitarian law and its implementation in national law.
The organisation is further urging the international community, humanitarian actors and donors to respond to the pandemic without losing sight of chronic conflict-related needs, including people’s need for livelihood support in order to weather the long-term effects of the pandemic.
In particular, the ICRC has appealed for 1.2 billion Swiss francs ($1.24 billion) to respond in places of conflict and violence, to support medical facilities and places of detention, curb the spread among and ensure medical access for displaced people and detainees, and to support National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, whose thousands of volunteers and workers are doing vital work on the frontline of this crisis.
According to the ICRC, as the conflict enters its tenth year, Syria is in a dire situation. A dramatically deteriorating economic situation, a simmering COVID-19 crisis, the direct or indirect effect of sanctions and ongoing fighting in parts of the country are pushing millions of people in Syria towards deeper poverty and hunger, raising fears of hunger and undernourishment.
The organisation warns that just over 9 million people are considered food insecure, an increase of 20 per cent in past 12 months. The impact of COVID-19 has now created hundreds of thousands of newly vulnerable people – 300,000 people, each representing a family, were registered recently by the government for a social benefits programme.
Syrians’ food security and livelihoods have been particularly affected, in a country where 80 per cent of the population already live below the international poverty line of $1.90 per day. Almost every second person in Syria can’t access or afford enough food in a country that was a self-sufficient, regional exporter of food prior to the conflict.
In May 2020, ICRC’s Economic Security Unit in Syria interviewed 125 households that had been previously supported by the organisation, representing 875 people, about the economic impact of COVID-19. Eighty-nine per cent of respondents said their livelihood was negatively impacted in recent months. They reported job loss or a reduction in revenue and alternative sources of income. Day labourers and business owners reported the biggest impact. Day labourers and business owners were particularly hard hit.
“Now, due to the economic situation I have less customers. I used to have about fifty customers a month, now I only have fifteen. And people are not ordering the same amount as before, they’re only buying basic things; they’re not buying sweets and food like before,” said Farida, a widow and a mother of three. She opened a shop through an ICRC micro-initiative project.
Seventy per cent of respondents said they had no savings to support themselves. The remaining 30 percent had savings to tide them over for one month at the most. For those who are still earning, the plunging Syrian pound and increased prices means that many basic goods are unaffordable anyway.
Since March, food prices have soared by 38 per cent nationally. As families struggle to put food on the table, the price of bread doubled across the country and bakeries have been working overtime to meet the increase in demand. Imported goods like rice and sugar doubled or tripled in price, with a litre of vegetable oil now costing more than the average daily wage of a day labourer.
There are huge variations across governorates for many products, with milk and dairy products reportedly increasing by almost 120 per cent in rural Damascus, for example, roughly ten times as much as in other parts of the country. People there and elsewhere told the ICRC of the stress and anxiety of not being able to provide for their families as before.
“We used to buy things at a cheap price, now the prices are over the top. We’re craving tomatoes and onions but we can’t afford them anymore. Sometimes we manage to buy half a kilo of tomatoes; then me and Um Mohammed take a tomato each, crush it, and put it on bread with salt and eat it, said Khalil Al Falah, a 65-year-old amputee who also benefited from ICRC’s micro-economic initiative
More than nine million Syrians are now considered food insecure, an increase of 1.4 million people (20 per cent) in the past year, raising fears of hunger and undernourishment. Today, almost every second person in Syria can’t access or afford enough food in a country that was a self-sufficient, regional exporter of food prior to the conflict.
In Jordan, Syrian refugees who had started businesses with the support of the ICRC have lost the majority of their income, as public health restrictions on movement and curfews impacted their enterprises. The ICRC is providing emergency cash assistance to support them.
Public health measures like lockdowns and curfews have made it difficult or impossible for many people to provide for themselves and their families, often compounding existing economic difficulties. Over time, loss of income and livelihoods could see levels of hunger, malnutrition and chronic illness and soar.
Also in other countries across the Middle East, millions already live with little or no healthcare, food, water and electricity, as well as volatile prices and destroyed infrastructure. Early indications in conflict zones where the ICRC operates shows the impact of COVID-19 is having on some of the region’s most vulnerable people, many of whom are already living a hand-to-mouth existence, struggling to survive and rebuild their lives against vast odds
In Iraq, for example, a recent ICRC survey of people the organisation has previously supported through micro-economic initiatives, 98 per cent (out of 781) said that COVID-19 had affected their business. Fifty per cent citing a lack of supplies or access to markets, reduction in customers and sales and temporary closure or reduction of working hours. Of those surveyed, 38 per cent said they lack the ability to access cash.
In Gaza, restrictions introduced to contain the spread of the virus affected restaurants and small grocery stores, as well as the livestock farmers who sold produce to them. They were already struggling to deal with falling prices for their stock. The ICRC will provide a cash grant for 120 farmers to support them purchasing grains, fodder, clean water etc for their businesses, working with the Ministry of Agriculture.
In Lebanon, the ICRC has already supported more than 17,700 people with cash or livelihood assistance this year. The COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions introduced to contain it in the country come on top of months of a deteriorating economic situation. Food and non-food prices have dramatically increased over the past eight months, with some goods rising by more than 90 per cent.
Vulnerable families and communities will likely see a huge drop in vital remittances from family members working abroad, as job losses in wealthier countries take their toll, warns the ICRC.
World Bank projections show global remittances are set to decline 20 percent in 2020 due to the COVID-induced economic crisis. COVID-19 has led to a significant diminution of remittances already in places – perhaps as much as 70 per cent in Yemen, where the cost of living has skyrocketed since the conflict began in 2015, with the price of a food basket (rice, lentils, milk, flour, beans, cooking oil, sugar, salt) rising 60 per cent. [IDN-InDepthNews – 28 June 2020]
Photo credit: ICRC
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