BEIRUT – Gulf Arab states and the fast-emerging BRICS economies should do more to address an expected funding shortfall of billions of dollars for Syrian aid efforts, a senior United States official said on Thursday.
Describing Syria as an "overwhelming and fast-moving humanitarian catastrophe", Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard said the accelerating pace of the crisis presented an almost unprecedented challenge.
Around 1.7 million refugees have fled Syria, most to Lebanon and Jordan whose small populations are struggling to cope with the influx, and four million more have been displaced within Syria by the two-year conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and rebels.
The United Nations expects the refugee numbers to double by the end of the year and says 10 million in total will need help. It has launched its biggest ever aid effort in response, seeking $5 billion to cover operations for the second half of the year.
But its more modest appeal for the first six months of the year was significantly underfunded, raising questions over prospects for meeting the latest target.
"Traditional donors in Europe feel the weight of economic problems. The world looks to the Gulf states to be new donors, emerging donors," Richard told Reuters. "We are in fact approaching ... the BRICS and Gulf countries."
According to United Nations figures the BRICS countries of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa contributed just $9.3 million out of a total of nearly $2.1 billion so far this year to U.N. and aid organisations for the Syria crisis.
Richards singled out Kuwait for praise. It delivered on a pledge of $300 million earlier this year, and for handing it over to the United Nations to be part of a coordinated international effort.
But other wealthy Gulf Arab states could do more.
"Traditionally the Gulf states prefer to give assistance bilaterally and sometimes prefer to provide in-kind assistance," she said in an interview at the U.S. embassy in Beirut.
"When I go and ask them to write a cheque to the United Nations, that represents a departure from their preferred methods of doing things," she said.
The United States pledged $300 million in humanitarian assistance earlier this month, bringing its total contribution since the start of the conflict to $815 million.
Richard, Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees and Migration, was speaking during a visit to Lebanon, a country of four million people which hosts a Syrian refugee population that officially stands at half a million but may be closer to 1 million.
The influx has added to pressures in a country which is already suffering from the spread of sectarian tensions and violence from the Syrian conflict. The cities of Tripoli and Sidon have seen street battles, while the capital Beirut and eastern Bekaa valley have come under rocket attack.
"Without additional help the communities that are hosting these refugees will ... really become strained and this will lead to tensions," Richard said, adding that she was looking at directing U.S. funds towards Lebanese host communities "so that they don't have a backlash against the refugees".
But, anticipating a regional funding gap "in the billions of dollars", she said she had also discussed with U.N. agencies how they could prioritise aid to the most vulnerable cases, even if it meant turning away people in genuine need.
"That's a terrible calculus to make," she said, but one that might be forced upon aid groups by the scale of events.
"I don't think any crisis matches this one in terms of so many (people) moving so fast. That speed ... has really challenged aid workers and all of the countries surrounding Syria."