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Don’t Forget the Humanitarian Crisis in the Middle East

Don’t Forget the Humanitarian Crisis in the Middle East

Thursday, 3 March, 2022 - 11:45
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

I am reading many analyses of the geostrategic implications of the war in Ukraine and its economic impact around the world. Unfortunately, there is no serious discussion yet about the negative consequences from the Ukraine crisis on refugees and displaced people in the Middle East, especially Syria and Yemen. It is urgent that we not forget those people.

First, there is the financial side of Ukraine crisis. According to the United Nations, about 370 thousand Ukrainians have taken refuge in eastern European countries. Like refugees from other wars, they will need assistance. Already before the Ukraine crisis budgets from donor nations for humanitarian assistance were not enough for the crises in Syria and Yemen. Now those strained budgets must also provide help to Ukrainian refugees. In a perfect world, the United States and other countries would increase their humanitarian budgets by large amounts. However, if they find a little more funding for humanitarian assistance, the increases will go mostly to Ukrainians refugees not Syrians or Yemenis who also need more help.

Germany is a good example.

Berlin last March provided the largest amount of humanitarian aid at the international conference to raise funds for humanitarian work with Syrian refugees and displaced Syrians in places like Idlib. Germany alone promised 1.74 billion dollars, almost a third of the total funds from the conference; its pledge was three times the size of the American pledge. (It is worth noting that humanitarian organizations said that they would need ten billion dollars but they raised only six billion.) Last Saturday in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the German government announced that it would quickly increase its spending for its military forces to 100 billion euros compared to the original plan to spend 53 billion in 2022. At the same time the German economy must pay much higher energy prices. It seems very unlikely it will find large new funds in 2022 to increase humanitarian aid to the Middle East.

The Ukraine crisis, therefore, will limit new donor resources for humanitarian aid in the Middle East and at the same time it is raising food prices higher around the world. Each dollar or euro is buying less food in 2022 than it did in 2020 or 2021. This comes at a terrible moment. In December the United Nations mediator Geir Pederson said that more than 12 million Syrians have difficulty getting enough food, and several children froze to death in camps in Idlib. At the same time, the United Nations has warned that more 16 million Yemenis are in danger of starvation. The director of the World Food Program, David Beasley, said last September that a thousand Yemenis a week were dying from hunger. And, of course, higher food prices will be a terrible challenge for millions of Lebanese who are not refugees but are suffering from the collapse of the Lebanese economy.

In the end the solution to the problems of refugees and displaced persons can only come from peace agreements and reconstruction with help from wealthier nations. The Ukraine crisis will not make this easier as relations between Washington and its allies on one side and Moscow on the other are the worst in forty years. As Washington and its allies strike hard blows against the Russian financial sector, instability in the Middle East will give Moscow opportunities to retaliate against Western interests. One vulnerability for the West is the displaced people in places like Idlib in Syria and in Libya. Putin, for example, will consider whether to exploit the terrible situation of the millions of civilians in Idlib who depend on cross-border aid coming from Turkey with permission of the United Nations Security Council. Putin knows his veto gives him a useful tool against Turkey and Europe when the Security Council considers renewal of that aid channel in four months.

Similarly, the political process in Libya is struggling, and there is a risk of new conflict between the government in Tripoli backed by the United Nations and Russia’s ally General Khalifa Haftar. New fighting would serve two Russian interests: it could cause new waves of refugees from Libya trying to reach Europe, and it would slow the development of a Libyan oil sector to replace Russian energy in European markets. While Russia considers pushing more refugees from the Middle East region to Europe, European countries will give Ukrainian refugees priority. Even Iraqi Kurds who enjoy a special sympathy in many Western circles found closed doors in the Polish forests when Kurdish refugees tried to enter the European Union last autumn. I hope for peace in Ukraine but I also hope we don’t forget the millions of desperate people in the Middle East who will also need more help.

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