08/02/2012 06:29 EDT | Updated 10/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Syrian Crisis Straining Limited Resources

In this photo taken Monday, April 9, 2012, Syrian refugees are seen at a camp in Reyhanli, Turkey. Turkey's prime minister accused Syria of infringing its border and said Tuesday that his country is considering what steps to take in response, including measures

Humanitarian advocates are asking why the international community — at a political stalemate over the next course of action in the deadly Syrian conflict — isn't doing more to financially help refugees flooding out into the region, straining limited resources and threatening stability.

"I don't think there are any easy answers in terms of military intervention, supporting the rebels," said Elizabeth Ferris, co-director of the Brookings-London School of Economics Project on Internal Displacement. "These are all complicated and political questions, but giving money to refugees should be a no-brainer.

"Money's always difficult to raise but it's easier to raise money than it is to figure out what to do with this regime that's slaughtering its own people."

Syrians fleeing the protracted, violent uprising to neighbouring countries have spiked in recent months, with figures of those registered to receive aid tripling since March.

"The numbers are increasing steadily — and in some moments dramatically, depending on the level of fighting and the ability to escape," said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The rapid influx after fighting between President Bashar Assad and opposition forces recently hit the populous cities of Damascus and Aleppo forced the UN and partner organizations to increase their international appeal for funds to pay for refugees flooding into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq to $193 million in June after an $84-million appeal three months prior.

But only 33 per cent — or $64 million — of the international appeal has been funded so far.

"Of course, there are limited international funds in an international financial crisis, but at the same time we do believe that there is political will and humanitarian will to support the people of Syria," said Fleming.

The primary organization involved in the refugee relief effort, the UNHCR, however, also notes that it's currently strained by a high volume of humanitarian crises.

"UNHCR has probably never been so stretched from all the humanitarian responses given to so many crises around the world," said Fleming, citing the crises in Mali, Somalia and South Sudan.

It comes, too, at a time when economic hardships are facing donor countries around the world.

Signs of strain

Daryl Grisgraber, senior advocate for Refugees International, says she hears many advocacy organizations with great ideas that never got off the ground due to lack of funding.

"[Money] is so lacking right now that even the best programs can't get implemented," Grisgraber says.

The independent non-governmental organization, Refugees International, recently warned in a report that Syria's refugee crisis threatens to create instability in Lebanon and Jordan, particularly if the international community fails to increase humanitarian aid to help host countries stretched to the limit.

Neighbouring countries hosting Syrian refugees are already showing signs of financial strain.

In Lebanon, currently housing 33,382 registered Syrian refugees, the UNHCR reported in July that the country's Higher Relief Committee had stopped non-life-saving health care for refugees due to lack of funding — and partner agencies were unable to fill the gap.

Last week, the European Union announced €5 million to help Syrian refugees in Lebanon, stating that the influx has been into some of the "most deprived communities" causing "additional strain."

Calls for more money

Ibrahim Saif, an economist and resident scholar at the Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center, predicts affected countries, especially Lebanon and Jordan, will be increasingly vocal in the coming months calling for more money to fund the refugee influx.

"They want the international community and the regional players … to step in and allocate the resources to these countries," said Saif, "and to avoid deteriorating economic situations in these countries that could be linked to receiving these refugees coming in."

Jordan, a country of 6.5 million population struggling with electricity supply issues and extremely limited freshwater resources, is hosting 37,615 registered Syrian refugees, but the government estimates a total of 150,000 in total have entered the kingdom.

Under the pressure of a swelling refugee population, Syria's southern neighbour opened a refugee camp on July 29 with a capacity for 100,000 refugees on its border.

The debt-ridden country has appealed to the international community for help with the financial burden of taking in Syrian refugees. The country already hosts hundreds of thousands of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.

Saif believes that Jordan is trying to prevent a repeat of the financial situation during the wave of Iraqi refugees when help from the international community came late.

"In almost all refugee situations, there's a quid pro quo: 'We'll let them stay but you've got to promise to help us,'" said Brookings Institution's Ferris. "So if that help is slow in coming it makes hospitality more difficult.

"It's the fear of the protracted nature of this," said Ferris. "It's not hard to be generous for a few months."

Seeking out new donors

Saif suggests that international aid agencies turn to the wealthy Gulf nations for financial support, particularly now during Ramadan, the annual one month of fasting done by Muslims.

Charity —particularly through zakat, a 2.5 per cent tax levied on an individual's personal worth of their goods — is encouraged during the Islamic observance.

"It's a good month to raise money — and they are actually."

Saudi Arabia's royal family raised $72.5 million Canadian for Syrian refugees in a five-day telethon ending last weekend.

UNHCR's Fleming says the agency hasn't tapped into the Gulf state wealth.

"We do have offices in those countries," said Fleming, but added, "It's relatively new, our engagement there."

Fleming says the UN is grateful that despite the European debt crisis, donors there have not cut funding.

While she called it "extremely worrying" that only one-third of the UNHCR international appeal is funded, Fleming said she's currently focused on the key necessity.

"The borders remain open, which is the biggest gift you can give to a fleeing refugee."