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UN: 'Record' amount of aid for Syria crisis still not enough

Despite the huge outpour of aid to help Syrian civilians, the United Nations says more needs to be done to keep refugee aid programs in the region afloat.

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U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien, center, visits with Syrian refugees who fled civil war in their country, in the Zaatari Refugee Camp, near Mafraq, Jordan, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. O'Brien said the international community has sent “record amounts’’ of aid to alleviate the fallout from the Syria crisis, but that it’s hard to keep up with rising regional needs. Some 4 million people have fled Syria since 2011, most moving to neighboring countries.

Raad Adayleh/AP

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The international community has sent "record amounts" of aid to alleviate the fallout from the Syria crisis, but it's hard to keep up with rising regional needs, the U.N. humanitarian chief said during a tour Saturday of Jordan's largest camp for Syrian refugees.

Growing numbers of increasingly desperate Syrian refugees have been heading to Europe or returning to Syria in recent weeks, in part because underfunded aid agencies had to slash support programs in regional refugee host countries such as Jordan.

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Stephen O'Brien, the U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, defended the global response to the refugee crisis when asked about the aid shortage and chaotic scenes of refugees streaming into Europe.

He said "need has risen so much that even though we are securing record amounts of funding, record amounts of political will and support, nonetheless the (funding) gap has widened" because of protracted conflicts in the region, such as those in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan.

O'Brien did not give specifics on how much funding has increased over previous levels.

The Syria conflict erupted in 2011 as a popular uprising against President Bashar Assad transformed into a brutal civil war. Since then, more than 4 million Syrians have fled their homeland, most settling in neighboring countries, while millions more are displaced inside Syria.

For 2015, aid agencies requested just over $7.4 billion, both for refugees and the internally displaced. So far, they have received $2.8 billion, or 38 percent of the total, the U.N. refugee agency said Saturday.

Refugee aid programs in host countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt were just 41 percent funded as of September, U.N. officials said.

Aid agencies have been forced to scale back food and cash aid, making it increasingly difficult for refugees to survive. In Jordan, for example, one-third of 630,000 refugees lost all food aid in September. Jordan also bans most refugees from working legally.

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Growing numbers of refugees are either heading to Europe or returning to Syria.

About 150 to 200 Syrian refugees leave Jordan and return to Syria every day, about 40 percent of them Zaatari residents and the rest refugees from other parts of Jordan, said Hovig Etyemezian, the U.N. director of the camp.

Zaatari's population has dropped to 79,000, down by 2,000 since the beginning of August, Etyemezian said.

Refugees are tired after years in the host countries and see no hope for the future, he said. The international community "hasn't woken up yet to the need to assist Jordan, the state institutions and the humanitarian agencies, so we can continue serving the refugees here," he added.

He did not know how many leave for Europe, but said it's the main topic among the young people in the camp.

In recent months, Syrian embassies in Jordan and Lebanon have begun issuing passports to large numbers of refugees. With valid passports, refugees can fly to Turkey without a visa and from there connect with smugglers to try to reach Greece, an EU member state, by boat.

From there, many continue their journey across the Balkans in hopes of reaching more prosperous European countries.