What can a donation of $900 buy?

As part of our series reporting from Lebanon, we follow your donations from Dubai to the refugee camp doorstep

A UNHCR tent for a refugee family, to cope with winter conditions

Located on the outskirts of Dubai, International Humanitarian City (IHC) is the world’s largest aid depot and home to a host of international aid organisations including the World Food Programme (WFP), the International Red Cross and the UNHCR.

From 100,000 square metres of warehouse, storage and office space, humanitarian agencies stockpile and disburse billions of dollars worth of essential equipment, from family tents and staple foodstuffs, to armed vehicles and bulletproof vests. Every single item is destined for foreign shores, and Dubai’s strategic location at the nexus of trade and logistics routes between Africa, Asia and the Middle East ensures that goods can be quickly and efficiently delivered on demand to troublespots from Sudan to the Philippines.

“The UNHCR keeps stockpiles of core relief items in many locations around the world, but Dubai is the most important one,” says Soliman Daud, senior global supply officer at the refugee agency. “Globally, at any given time, we have enough core relief items stockpiled to help 700,000 people. Today 50 per cent of our [global inventory] is in Dubai.”

More than half of UNHCR aid to Syria comes through IHC, and in June Philanthropy Age watched as the agency loaded 42 shipping containers with a range of goods bound for the war-torn country. Weighing almost 250 tons in total, the dispatch included 100,000 blankets, 100,000 sleeping mats, and 40,000 jerrycans along with other equipment such as tents and cooking equipment. The crates would be taken to the nearby port at Jebel Ali, and then delivered via the Mediterranean to the port of Tartous, Syria, where they would be distributed among some of the estimated 6.4 million Syrians that have been forced to flee their homes but remain in the country.

A series of shipments and airlifts has spirited thousands of tons of goods to Syria as well as Lebanon, Jordan and other countries buckling under the weight of the refugee crisis. And according to the UNHCR, the cost of storing and distributing these items in such bulk would be prohibitive were it not for the support of the Dubai Government, which donated the land for IHC and bankrolls the free zone’s operations.

The UNHCR has operated from Dubai since 2006, and this relationship was formalised in 2012 with the signing of an agreement designating the UN agency as a member of IHC. As a consequence, the UNHCR pays no rent on the 22,500 square metres of warehouse and office space that it utilises. The Dubai Government also covers the cost of water and electricity, so that IHC operates as a heavily subsidised platform for inter-agency coordination, one that is enabling global aid players to funnel money towards beneficiaries rather than hordes of back-office staff.

“This support is very valuable, and IHC’s geographical location is very important too,” says Daud. “Dubai has a strategic location and it also has a very good logistics infrastructure connecting the emirate to many different parts of the world.”

Around 30 per cent of the agency’s shipments from Dubai are targeted towards mitigating the human suffering caused by the conflict in Syria; the rest is destined for other crises, and Africa in particular.

“We send by air, by sea and even by road,” adds Daud. “Near to us is Jebel Ali Port, which has very good facilities, and we are also near to seven airports in the UAE, all of which we can use for deliveries. There is a lot of work to do.”