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Ramadan pulls despair of millions of Syrians into sharp focus

Syrian refugees attend Iftar celebrations hosted by UNHCR and regional non-profit partner International Relief & Development (IRD Jordan). © UNHCR/Christopher Herwig

Syrian refugees attend Iftar celebrations hosted by UNHCR and regional non-profit partner International Relief & Development (IRD Jordan). © UNHCR/Christopher Herwig

AMMAN, June 7 (UNHCR)—For Abu Ahmad, Ramadan got off to a shaky start this year. As the 44-year-old from Homs and his family looked forward to breaking their first day of fasting with the traditional iftar meal in their small apartment in the Jordanian capital, Amman, the gas for their cooker ran out.

“This month I am covered in debt, and I didn’t even have the seven dinars (US$10) for a new gas bottle. I had to go to our Jordanian neighbours and borrow the money so that we could eat,” he told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

Back in Syria, Abu Ahmad described Ramadan as a special time, when his extended family would come together to perform evening prayers and, after breaking their fast, spend long nights in the parks that dotted their neighbourhood of Homs, buying sweets and other treats for their children.

This year marks the family’s third Ramadan in exile, and the contrast with their happy memories back home is stark. “Here we never have enough money for food, even on a normal day, but especially during Ramadan. My children crave things that I know I can’t afford, like apples and juice. That’s why Ramadan here is basically spent indoors, as we can’t afford the expense.”

“We never have enough money for food, even on a normal day, but especially during Ramadan.”

With the crisis now in its sixth year, Abu Ahmad’s experience is a familiar one for millions inside Syria and in exile in neighbouring countries. The latest UNHCR data from two major refugee-hosting countries—Jordan and Lebanon—reveals an alarming rise in personal debt and impoverishment, ensuring that this Ramadan it will be harder than ever for Syrians to put food on the table at the end of the day.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi highlighted the plight of millions of men, women and children observing the holy month amid fierce conflict or uprooted from their homes, in a video marking the start of Ramadan on June 6.

In Jordan, 85 per cent of the 655,000 registered Syrian refugees are living hand-to-mouth in towns and cities across the country, with 93 per cent now falling below the national poverty line of US$88 per person per month. The latest figures from January 2016 show that almost three-quarters of families outside the country’s main refugee camps now live in debt, owing on average US$1,038 including unpaid rent.

Close to half of all Syrian households are forced to borrow money or use credit to buy food, while more than a quarter reported reducing expenditure on other essentials including education and health to meet their basic food needs.

Caught in a spiral of poverty and debt, refugees in Jordan take extreme measures to make ends meet.

Caught in a spiral of poverty and debt, refugees in Jordan are taking ever-more extreme measures to make ends meet. Only 20 per cent of households reported eating fruit at least once per week, while 40 per cent of families have members who have taken high-risk, illegal, degrading or exploitative temporary jobs to help pay for food and rent.

In Lebanon, which is host to 1.05 million registered Syrian refugees, figures from the end of March show the proportion of families living in debt has increased sharply to 91 per cent, with families owing on average US$940. Of the total refugee population, 70 per cent live below the poverty line of US$3.84 per person per day, in a country where almost 80 per cent of Syrian refugees are women and children.

The number of cooked meals eaten daily by refugees in Lebanon is steadily declining. In 2015—the most recent year for which data are available—one in three family members reported eating one or no cooked meals a day, up from one in four the previous year. Increasing poverty is also resulting in less nutritious eating habits, with 60 per cent of households saying they were unable to consume fruit or vegetables on a daily basis last year.

Inside Syria, meanwhile, two thirds of the total population is living in extreme poverty and unable to afford the minimum food needed for survival. The situation has been exacerbated by skyrocketing prices, with the cost of many staples such as bread having doubled in the past year.

In hard to reach and besieged areas, where food availability is often severely limited, some residents have resorted to extreme measures in order to survive, including drinking unsafe water and eating grass.

To help provide life-saving aid to refugee families this Ramadan, please donate now.