Syria’s deepening refugee hunger crisis is one of the worst in the 50-year history of the UN World Food Programme, its top official in the country said Wednesday.
More than 2.3 million people have already fled to makeshift camps in neighboring countries, and the U.N. believes the number will grow next year if the deadly civil war continues. Some 6.5 million people are displaced inside Syria.
Fear of the winter has given rise to desperation in the refugee camps where nothing more than tent sheeting stands between the displaced and the bitter cold.
“If the conflict continues, the refugee crisis could cause serious instability throughout in the region – the outcome could be catastrophic,” said Matthew Hollingworth, UNWFP’s Country Director in Syria.
“A huge number of people need our help, and we also face the security challenge working with various different sides to make it safe for us to work on the ground.
“The combination of the scale and complexity make this one of the worst problems we have ever faced - certainly in terms of difficulty."
Hollingworth said cost of feeding Syria’s refugees was almost $1 billion in the past year, and would likely increase further
“We’re really at the point where it is unsustainable for this conflict to continue,” he said. “There needs to be a political solution.”
Hollingworth’s comments came as the heads of the U.N. and European Union aid agencies called for a "humanitarian ceasefire" in Syria to allow convoys to deliver help to areas that aid workers cannot reach.
The U.N. leaders were in Brussels to sign contracts which committed the European Commission to provide $202 million in aid to people affected by the Syrian crisis.
"A humanitarian ceasefire would allow aid convoys to deliver assistance to communities which remain out of our reach," a statement by the U.N. and EU leaders said, describing the Syria conflict as “the greatest humanitarian tragedy of our times.”
Aid workers have regularly complained that restrictions have been placed on their movement in Syria, particularly by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Blockades have been used mostly by the government but also on a smaller scale by rebels to prevent food and medicine entering besieged areas.
The U.N. plans to airlift more food, blankets, sleeping mats and kitchen sets to the northeast over the next two weeks after plans for ground shipments were scrapped due to the difficulty of negotiating with different factions on the ground
The United Nations made its first delivery of humanitarian aid by air to Syria from Iraq on Sunday, dropping food on the Hassakeh governorate, which had not received any significant since May, Reuters reported.
The United Nations appealed this week for a record $6.5 billion for Syria and its neighbors to help 16 million people, many of them hungry or homeless victims of a conflict that has lasted 33 months.
The European Commission and the EU's 28 member states have donated more than two billion euros since the start of the Syria crisis, making it the biggest donor, the EU said.
NBC News’ Keir Simmons, and Reuters, contributed to this report.
First published December 18 2013, 8:35 AM