Militants' cash lures Syria refugees as international aid dwindles

DUBAI/BEIRUT (BLOOMBERG) - Mohammad Deen, a Syrian refugee and father of six, struggles to find the money to meet his children's needs and worries who else might step in with an offer to help.

"If Daesh approaches my son and gives him US$300 (S$405) to fight with them, he would do it," he said, using the Arabic acronym of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Deen lives in a dilapidated house in northern Lebanon, and has no access to the dwindling international aid available to millions of displaced Syrians. Three of his children are disabled, while the son he's especially concerned about is 18, in the target age group for jihadist recruiters.

As Syria's war enters its fifth year, its refugees are fading deeper into the background. At a conference in Kuwait last week, countries promised more aid, but donor fatigue has left humanitarian organisations unable to help people like Deen, and that's creating an opportunity for the Islamist militants who play a growing role in the conflict. This month, ISIS and al-Nusra Front militants took over much of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.

"We take millions of youth in the heart of the Middle East and give them no hope, no education, no professional training, no jobs or a future," said Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council and a former UN relief coordinator. "We still expect them not to radicalise? Of course they will radicalise."

Islamists dominate

Syria's conflict began in March 2011 with protests against President Bashar al-Assad, and spiraled into a war in which groups like ISIS have come to dominate the opposition to Assad. The conflict has left at least 220,000 people dead and 1 million wounded, United Nations special envoy Staffan De Mistura said in January.

For 2015, almost US$3 billion are needed to help 12 million internally displaced Syrians, and another US$5.5 billion to support 4.2 million refugees in nearby countries, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), the lead group coordinating Syrian aid.

The biggest groups of refugees are in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, with others in Iraq and Egypt.

Last year, the agency could only meet half of refugees' needs, and it may not even reach that level in 2015, according to Daniel Endres, the UNCHR's head of external relations. "We're trying to do the reductions where it hurts least, but it will hurt," Endres said in an interview in Dubai.

Fewer aid dollars could force more children to drop out of school to work, and lead to the spread of malnutrition, he said.


ISIS offers monthly stipends of US$400 for local fighters and US$800 for foreign ones, as well as free housing, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK- based organisation that monitors the war. It gets the houses from seized land, and the money from oil sales, extortion and robbery among other sources, the OECD's Financial Action Task Force said in February.

Last year, the US led Syria donor effort with US$1.7 billion, according to the UN. In the Middle East, Kuwait gave US$300 million and Saudi Arabia US$130 million. Those sums are dwarfed by the more than US$30 billion that the oil-rich Gulf countries have spent propping up Egypt's economy after the army takeover in 2013.

On March 31, countries pledged US$3.8 billion at a donors conference in Kuwait, though not all past promises have been met.

'Every Measure'

"The needs are growing by virtually every measure," Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, said at the Kuwait meeting. "Yet too many countries are giving the same amount, or even less than they have in the past."

The US pledged an additional US$507 million and Kuwait US$500 million. The United Arab Emirates promised about US$100 million.

Donations have been scarce because the crisis "was much larger than expected, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah Al-Mubarak Al- Sabah, minister of state for cabinet affairs in Kuwait, said in an interview.

In the countries hosting the refugees, the economic and social strains are growing.

Turkey has spent US$5.5 billion on the almost 2 million Syrian refugees it hosts, and only got US$250 million of external help, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last month. ''The international community says, 'what a great nation you are,'' but when it comes to money they don't reach into their pockets," he said.

Competing for jobs

In Lebanon and Jordan, locals have complained about Syrians competing for water, education, medical treatment and jobs. Jordan hosts 1.4 million Syrians, about a fifth of them in camps. In Lebanon, the population of 4.5 million has swelled more than 25 percent with the influx. The army has raided their informal settlements and arrested dozens suspected of ties to extremist groups.

In the Lebanese town of Arsal, Mayor Ali Hujeiri said it's not only poverty and the lure of money that attracts fighters. People who join ISIS or other groups "are doing that out of their conviction as well," he said.

Still, he said, ISIS is the top recruiter because they have more money thanks to their access to oil.

The Lebanese army and militants from ISIS and al- Nusra Front clashed in Arsal last August. Lebanon hasn't set up camps for the refugees, amid fears that would heighten sectarian tensions already inflamed by the Syrian war.

At a refugee settlement in Minnieh in northern Lebanon, residents catalogued their grievances to an aid worker: contaminated water, not enough food, no money for rent.

Deen, the Syrian with six children, sums up the way some have turned to jihadist groups for money.

"Whoever grows a beard gets a dollar," he said. "While we are homeless and can't even secure food for our families."

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