UN humanitarian chief highlights fragility of Syria’s economy

UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock has highlighted the fragility of Syria’s economy.

“The Syrian economy, devastated by nearly a decade of conflict, has entered a period of extreme fragility, marked by exchange rate volatility, high inflation, dwindling remittances, and lockdown measures to contain COVID-19,” Lowcock told the Security Council in a briefing.

For the year as a whole, the economy is expected to contract by more than 7 percent. Initial estimates suggest that job losses in recent months have increased unemployment from 42 percent last year to close to 50 percent today, he said.

Remittances from abroad, a lifeline on which many Syrians depend, have fallen. Estimated remittances from Gulf States alone are now 2 million U.S. dollars per day, down from 4.4 million dollars in 2017, and at least 7 million dollars in 2010, he said.

After falling to its lowest recorded informal rate in June, at 3,200 Syrian pounds to the U.S. dollar, the pound has been regaining value. But this has so far not translated into price reductions for basic commodities and the cost of them continues to rise. Market monitoring by the World Food Programme recorded a 48 percent increase in the average price of a standard reference food basket between May and June. Food prices are 240 percent higher than in June last year, he noted.

What this means is that families across the country can no longer afford the very basics. And food security and nutrition indicators clearly reflect that. Some 9.3 million people are food insecure. More than 2 million more are at risk of becoming food insecure.

Some 86 percent of households said they are buying lower quality food, or less food, or skipping meals, said Lowcock.

In some parts of the country, recent surveillance data show that chronic malnutrition among children under 5 is now at 29 percent, compared to 19 percent around this time last year, he said.

Humanitarian aid operations across Syria are reaching an average of 6.8 million people each month, he said.

Some 4.6 million people are receiving monthly food assistance; more than 8.9 million medical procedures have been conducted; and more than 1.6 million children have received help with their education.

The United Nations is also helping tackle COVID-19 in Syria. The problem is now countrywide: cases have now been confirmed in all but one of Syria’s governorates. The number of confirmed cases remains in the hundreds — so still a relatively low level. The true number of cases is certainly higher as limited testing capacity and a reluctance, among some people, to acknowledge an infection masks the real scale of the outbreak, he said.