Mohammad Deen, a Syrian refugee and father of six, struggles to find the money to meet his children’s needs and worries who else might step in with an offer to help. “If Daesh approaches my son and gives him $300 to fight with them, he would do it,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Deen lives in a dilapidated house in northern Lebanon, and has no access to the dwindling international aid available to millions of displaced Syrians. Three of his children are disabled, while the son he’s especially concerned about is 18, in the target age group for jihadist recruiters.
As Syria’s war enters its fifth year, its refugees are fading deeper into the background. At a conference in Kuwait last week, countries promised more aid, but donor fatigue has left humanitarian organizations unable to help people like Deen, and that’s creating an opportunity for the Islamist militants who play a growing role in the conflict. This month, ISIL and al-Nusra Front militants took over much of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.
‘They will radicalize’
“We take millions of youth in the heart of the Middle East and give them no hope, no education, no professional training, no jobs or a future,” said Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and a former U.N. relief coordinator. “We still expect them not to radicalize? Of course they will radicalize.”
Syria’s conflict began in March 2011 with protests against President Bashar Assad, and spiraled into a war in which groups such as ISIL have come to dominate the opposition to Assad. The conflict has left at least 220,000 people dead and 1 million wounded, U.N. special envoy Staffan De Mistura said in January.
For 2015, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the lead group coordinating Syrian aid, said it needs almost $3 billion to help 12 million internally displaced Syrians, and another $5.5 billion to support 4.2 million refugees in nearby countries. The biggest groups of refugees are in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, with others in Iraq and Egypt.
Last year, the agency could only meet half of refugees’ needs, and it may not even reach that level in 2015, according to Daniel Endres, the UNHCR’s head of external relations. “We’re trying to do the reductions where it hurts least, but it will hurt,” Endres said. Fewer aid dollars could force more children to drop out of school to work, and lead to the spread of malnutrition, he said.
ISIL offers monthly stipends of $400 for local fighters and $800 for foreign ones, as well as free housing, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based organization that monitors the war. It gets the houses from seized land, and the money from oil sales, extortion and robbery among other sources, the Financial Action Task Force of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development said in February.
Last year, the United States led the Syria donor effort with $1.7 billion, the U.N. said. In the Middle East, Kuwait gave $300 million and Saudi Arabia $130 million. Those sums are dwarfed by the more than $30 billion that the oil-rich Gulf countries have spent propping up Egypt’s economy after the army takeover in 2013.
‘The needs are growing’
On March 31, countries pledged $3.8 billion, though not all past promises have been met.
“The needs are growing by virtually every measure,” Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., said at the Kuwait meeting. “Yet too many countries are giving the same amount, or even less than they have in the past.”
The U.S. pledged an additional $507 million and Kuwait $500 million. The United Arab Emirates promised about $100 million.
Donations have been scarce because the crisis “was much larger than expected,” Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah Al-Mubarak Al- Sabah, minister of state for Cabinet affairs in Kuwait, said in an interview.
In the countries hosting the refugees, the economic and social strains are growing. Turkey has spent $5.5 billion on the almost 2 million Syrian refugees it hosts, and only got $250 million of external help, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last month.
In Lebanon and Jordan, locals have complained about Syrians competing for water, education, medical treatment and jobs. Jordan hosts 1.4 million Syrians, about a fifth of them in camps. In Lebanon, the population of 4.5 million has swelled more than 25 percent with the influx.
Competition for jobs and scarce resources is causing “tensions with local populations,” said Doris Carrion, a researcher at Chatham House in London who is studying the Syrian refugee situation.
In the Lebanese town of Arsal, Mayor Ali Hujeiri said it’s not only poverty and the lure of money that attracts fighters. People who join ISIL or other groups “are doing that out of their conviction as well,” he said. Still, he said, ISIL is the top recruiter because it has more money thanks to its access to oil.
The Lebanese army and militants from ISIL and al-Nusra Front clashed in Arsal last August. Lebanon hasn’t set up camps for the refugees, amid fears that would heighten sectarian tensions already inflamed by the Syrian war.
At a refugee settlement in Minnieh in Lebanon, residents cataloged their grievances to an aid worker: contaminated water, not enough food, no money for rent.
Deen, the Syrian with six children, sums up the way some have turned to jihadist groups for money.
“Whoever grows a beard gets a dollar,” he said. “While we are homeless and can’t even secure food for our families.”