UK aid cuts to refugee legal support threaten ‘utter destitution’ for Syrians


LONDON: Tens of thousands of Syrians will be left without legal support, leaving many “in utter destitution” without documents they need to work, travel or return home, after the UK government cut £4 million ($5.52 million) in funding from a charity program, according to its director.

The gutting of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) legal support program comes amid reports of significant reductions in Britain’s Syria and overall humanitarian aid budget.

“This cut means we need to stop legal and protection assistance for 65,000 displaced people in Syria and Lebanon,” said NRC Secretary-General Jan Egeland.

“Syrian children will no longer get help to get birth certificates, students and schoolchildren will no longer get help to get exam or training documents, and we can no longer help people with housing, land and property rights,” he added.

“For some people, who hoped to be integrated into Lebanon, that hope has gone. It’s utter destitution when you are paperless.”

Projected cuts to the Syria budget could be as high as 67 percent — that means British contributions could fall from the £137 million pledged in 2020 to £45 million for 2021.

Egeland said the cuts to the NRC program run counter to British values and interests. “The UK has been a champion of legal advice for refugees for many years, so that people can one day return to working life as productive citizens,” he added.

The NRC’s Bahia Zrikem said staff had reported increased child labor, and families reduced to eating two meals per day. “Humanitarian needs are increasing, not falling,” she added.

Laurie Lee of Care International said her organization had already seen its work in Syria cut by 36 percent in the past year.

“Though budgets are not yet confirmed, if there are further cuts, important work which has been funded by people in the UK will be in jeopardy, including resilience-building efforts, which help Syrians rebuild their lives following 10 years of conflict,” she added.

Ahead of a donor conference on Monday, the UN has urged donors including Britain, the third-largest donor to Syria, to continue supporting the war-torn country.

“As we approach the Brussels conference, we are calling on all donors to continue to stand by those who rely on our support after 10 years of conflict,” said a spokesperson.

Persistent violence, a near-total economic collapse and skyrocketing food prices are compounding the hardship faced by Syrians.

According to the World Health Organization, the war has left almost 90 percent of the population below the poverty line. 

Reports suggest that Britain is poised to slash its total aid budget to £9 billion from £15 billion — from 0.7 to 0.5 percent of gross domestic product.

The proposed cuts could mean aid to Somalia will be reduced by 60 percent, to Yemen by 59 percent, and to Libya by as much as 64 percent.

A UK government spokesperson said: “We have been delivering life-saving aid and support direct to the Syrian people — including over 28 million food rations, over 20 million medical consultations and over 14 million vaccines — since 2012.

“The seismic impact of the pandemic on the UK economy has forced us to take tough but necessary decisions, including temporarily reducing the overall amount we spend on aid.

“We are still working through what this means for individual programmes, and decisions have not yet been made.”

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