UN refugee agency takes aim at GCC corporate giving

The UN refugee agency's new digital portal comes as the world witnesses the “largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War”

The United Nations’ refugee agency, known as UNHCR, launched Thursday an online ‘Partnership Platform’ to encourage corporations and high-net-worth individuals in the Gulf Arab region to donate towards aiding Syrian refugees, director of external relations, Daniel Endres said.

The move comes as the world witnesses the “largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War”, with the Syrian war entering its fifth year, said Endres. The conflict has forced 3.8 million people to take refuge in neighbouring countries – Jordan and Lebanon - and left 12 million others internally in need of humanitarian assistance.

“Syria has burst the system”, Endres said, which had already been under pressure with humanitarian crises in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar and Mali. “Whereas governments have increased their support overtime, their budgets are so overstretched and exhausted in the virtual sense that we need to look at new avenues and additional support, and I think the human suffering that we are witnessing today is unparalleled and that’s where we have to step in,” said Endres.  

The online platform offers companies three options to provide assistance. They can contribute a direct cash gift, which will go directly towards desperately needed items for Syrian refugees, such as household items, sleeping mats and tents. Donor firms can also donate cash through the UNHCR ‘cash for refugees’ programme in Jordan, enabling refugees to directly withdraw the funds through ATMs and iris scans. The platform accepts minimum donation pledges of $25,000.

“It’s a very unique and innovative way of giving that cash directly to refugees. They have a monthly allowance of $141, and this really allows them the dignity of choice to select the items that they need themselves,” Endres said.

Companies with surplus stock or those wanting to donate a product or service can also do so via the new website. A transportation company, for example, could offer to transport relief items to their destinations; and a supermarket chain can donate 10,000 blankets.

“We have received indication from people who want to be introduced to a mechanism that will facilitate access to the humanitarian response, and allows them to give in a way that maximises impact and effectiveness, but that is in line with their core competencies,” he said.

The initiative, which mainly targets the private sector but is also open to donations from governments and individuals, is the first of its kind for UNHCR globally, with the view of implementing it in other regions once it proves successful. It will also create a virtual warehouse to stockpile pledged, but unused, items so they can be used by other aid organisations.

Fadi Ghandour, founder of the Middle East’s biggest logistics company Aramex, and the managing director of Crescent Group Badr Jafar, played a key role in supporting the creation of the platform, according to Endres.

“Aramex were working with us hand in hand to develop the platform since it was an idea and this includes defining the targets, the technical aspects of it, what we want to achieve and how we go about doing so. They’ve been very engaged since the beginning in seeing it through to launch,” said Endres.

Worsening conditions

Speaking of the worsening Syrian refugee situation, Endres said: “With the global humanitarian funding shortage, we need to continue to target the extremely vulnerable people right now because we don’t have sufficient [resources] to even provide support to just the vulnerable as such.”

Two thirds of Syrian refugees in Jordan, the majority of which live outside camps, survive below the poverty line of that country, while one third lives below the abject poverty line of less than a $1 a day.

There’s a “new type of humanitarian crisis in the making”, especially with the UNHCR’s partner agency, the World Food Programme, having to reduce the food vouchers and supplies they give to refugees in a “substantial manner”, he said. “Receiving less food, less cash for survival, fewer relief items, will put them under extreme pressure. And if they are under extreme pressure that means children who were probably going to school will have to now find work,” said Endres.

Currently, only 50 per cent of Syrian refugee children attend school, with the remainder struggling to make a living.

The impact of this crisis is beginning to show, not only within the refugee community, but also in the host country’s labour and real estate markets, where wages are dropping and rent prices are increasing. “That’s what we are worried about and you see more tension coming up between and within the communities. We are not only facing a humanitarian crisis, but it’s becoming a security issue,” said Endres.

This year, UNHCR will require $1.3bn in funding to assist the 3.8 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries, and $300m for those it assists inside the war-torn nation. So far, the agency received up to seven per cent of those requirements, and aims to shore up support at a pledging conference in Kuwait on March 31.

Humanitarian catastrophes are not limited to Syria, with UNHCR responding to high displacement situation in South Sudan and in the Central Africa Republic, where hundreds of thousands fled to neighbouring countries. This is in addition to conflicts in Ukraine and Nigeria that have also led to mass displacements.