U.N. shrinks food aid to Syria refugees in Turkey as cash low

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The United Nations food agency said Friday it had been forced to withdraw aid from nine Syrian refugee camps in Turkey due to a lack of funds, calling on donors to step up.

“Unfortunately, in February, we were forced to ask the Turkish government to take over assistance in nine camps where we could not continue providing aid because we lack funds,” said World Food Program spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Byrs said WFP was facing a $71-million shortfall for its aid program in Turkey this year.

“Getting more funding is really essential,” she said.

The U.N. agency needs $9 million each month to provide hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the country with food aid, she said.

It had, in cooperation with the Turkish government, been providing some 220,000 refugees with electronic vouchers in the form of debit cards credited with money, allowing them to purchase the food and supplies they need in stores.

But it had been forced to cut the number of recipients to just 154,000 last month, Byrs said.

The Turkish government, which had already been contributing 40 percent of the monthly value credited to the cards, has for now stepped in to close the funding gap.

But the country, which is hosting some 1.7 million Syrian refugees and which has already spent around $4.5 billion to assist them since the Syrian conflict began four years ago, will not be able to foot the bill on its own forever, Byrs warned.

The lacking funds also threaten WFP’s plans to expand the vastly popular “debit card” voucher system to refugees living outside the camps in Turkey.

“Predictability of the financing is essential if we want to expand the program,” she told AFP.

It would be a tragedy if WFP cannot expand the program or is forced to permanently scale it back, Byrs said, stressing that the electronic vouchers allow refugees to choose for themselves what they eat and is far more efficient and less expensive that simply handing out meals.

And since the refugees spend the cash in Turkish stores, WFP estimates the program has pumped nearly $700 million into the Turkish economy since 2011.

At the same time, Turkey became WFP’s top food supplier worldwide last year, when the U.N. agency procured food worth $380 million from 28 different Turkish suppliers.

This is not the first time WFP has been forced to cut aid due to lacking funds.

Late last year, the U.N. agency briefly suspended food aid to more than 1.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, blaming a financing emergency.

It resumed that aid after donors chipped in around $90 million following an urgent appeal for funds.

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