Watch CBSN Live

As Syria crisis deepens, "help is dwindling"

As the war in Syria enters its fifth year, life for millions of people -- many of whom have already fled the country and many thousands more who either can't or refuse to leave their homeland -- continues to get worse.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres says it's the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time -- a grim fact he hoped would have support for those affected pouring in from around the globe.

"But instead," said Guterres, "help is dwindling."

"There just isn't enough aid to meet the colossal needs -- nor enough development support to the hosting countries creaking under the strain of so many refugees," the U.N. humanitarian chief said.

War and hunger

One of the organizations hit hardest by those diminishing funds is the World Food Program ( WFP). Its staff is struggling to keep up, and note the reality that this type of assistance isn't practical long-term.

"We can't function in emergency mode for too long. It's not sustainable to be running an emergency for more than five years," said Dina El-Kassaby, the communication officer for WFP's operations in Syria.

WFP says it spends around $25 million every week to assist internally displaced people inside Syria and those who have fled to five neighboring countries: Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.

It's a Herculean task. Along with other non-governmental groups, WFP tries to care for many of the roughly 3.9 million registered Syrian refugees in neighboring countries, and some of the almost 8 million displaced internally.

CBS News recently followed up with WFP workers we spoke with last year.


Speaking from Damascus, El-Kassaby told CBS News nearly all of the people they are assisting in the Syrian capital have been displaced from their homes across the country, including many from the rural suburbs of Damascus, and Ar-Raqqa and Aleppo in the north.

Refugees in Damascus displaced and desperate

"Some of the people we're assisting inside Damascus are those who have lost their jobs. They've spent all of their money, all of their savings, sold their assets and now are completely desperate and need our assistance to survive," El-Kassaby said.

The sheer duration of the crisis is one of the main reasons WFP said they're not taking in as much cash as they had been. The organization is funded by voluntary contributions from donor countries and private individuals.

"Our resources are running low, but thanks to donors, there are contributions that are coming in. We are still able to sustain the operation, but not at the same level as before," El-Kassaby said.

WFP said it was able to reach almost 6 million people last year with food assistance, through food vouchers for refugees in the neighboring countries, and actual rations for the displaced families inside Syria.

Reduced funding has forced them to slightly reduce the amount of food rations, like rice, oil and lentils, handed out in Damascus, but food distribution has remained relatively stable in the capital.

El-Kassaby said aid is still not regularly reaching those in need in certain places - some of which are controlled by ISIS.

The United Nations said Thursday that about 440,000 people -- double the previous estimate -- are believed to be living in besieged areas of the country at present.

WFP's emergency coordinator in neighboring Jordan, Jonathan Campbell, also spoke of the huge strains the war with no end in sight is putting on his staff, and the 624,000 registered refugees in the country.

Syria instability blocks refugees’ dreams to go home

In spite of the fact that tens of thousands are crammed into sprawling camps, most Syrian refugees in Jordan live in Jordanian towns, and that has put huge new pressure on the country's infrastructure; their sewage, health care and school systems are overcrowded and overburdened.

Campbell said the WFP's implementation of the e-card system in Jordan, which allows refugees to use pre-paid cards to buy food and other goods in Jordanian shops, gave the country a boost. But with funding down, WFP has had to decrease the amount of value placed on cards for refugees living outside the camps from an average $28 per person, per month to $19.

More than half of the refugees in Jordan are women and children, Campbell said, and the kids suffer the most.

"We haven't yet seen people in really terrible physical condition. What we have seen is people in terrible mental condition. People who've been through things that nobody should go through, particularly children," he said.

Many of the refugees want to go back to their homes in Syria, but Campbell said he knows as well as they do that it's more dream than goal right now. He still tries to keep the hope alive when he speaks to refugees, talking about "when you go back," rather than "if you go back."

Abeer Etefa, WFP's senior spokesperson in the Middle East and North Africa, told CBS News the situation has become much more difficult in Lebanon, where officials said in January that with 1.1 million refugees already in the country, they simply had "no capacity" for more.

WFP is assisting around 800,000 people in Lebanon. Most, Etefa said, are women taking care of children. Etefa has been to some of the informal settlements in the Bakaa Valley where people are living in extremely challenging conditions, made worse this year by Lebanon's harsh winter.

"Everyone is so nervous about the future, the future of Syria, the future of Lebanon, the future of the region. There has been also some spillover of the conflict from Syria into Lebanon, so we're talking here about the... security of the Middle East," Etefa said.

According to a U.N.-backed report released in March, the war has reduced life expectancy in Syria by 20 years -- from around 76 years in 2010 to an estimated 56 years in 2014.

Etefa said she can see a wear and tear in the spirit of the Syrian people, especially those who have had to leave their homes and, in many cases, their families. She tries to comfort them by saying she hopes the next time she sees them, it will be back in their homes in Syria, in peace and stability.

In the beginning, she could believe what she was saying, "but as the crisis continues to go on... I don't know if I can really say this from the heart."