Syria: Food distribution to start for vulnerable Iraqi refugees

Briefing Notes, 31 August 2007

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 31 August 2007, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

In Syria yesterday (Thursday), UNHCR and the World Food Programme started a text SMS campaign by mobile phone to alert more than 33,000 vulnerable Iraqi refugees in Damascus of the launch of the first food distribution programme for them on Saturday. The first food ration will cover two months in anticipation of the needs of many refugee families during the upcoming fasting month of Ramadan.

We have found text messages to mobile phones are one the most effective ways of communicating with the refugees who often do not have a stable address but either they or someone close to them in their immediate community has a mobile phone. Due to the constant need to communicate with family and friends remaining in Iraq, mobile phones are often an indispensable tool for many refugee families. The SMS text message was sent only to those eligible for the food distribution. Ten thousand SMS's were sent.

UNHCR, WFP and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) will start the food distribution on Saturday mainly to women, children and the most vulnerable of Iraqi refugees.

Distribution by more than 200 volunteers will take place at the SARC warehouses in the old Damascus fairground city. UNHCR trucks will also transport food packages to neighbourhoods where Iraqi refugees concentrate. The food packages consist of dry food items from WFP such as oil, rice and lentils as well as additional items provided by UNHCR such as sugar, cheese, canned meat, pasta, beans, cracked wheat, tea, jam, tomato paste and canned fish.

Food rations will be distributed on a monthly basis and are expected to benefit 50,000 refugees by the end of 2007.

UNHCR is providing $2.2 million for the additional food items, covering four months of rations for 50,000 refugees. UNHCR plans to build facilities in the SARC warehouse compound and to purchase four trucks to help distribute food to Iraqi refugees outside Damascus.

An estimated 2 million Iraqis are currently displaced within their country, while another 2.2 million have fled, mainly to nearby nations. Syria estimates 1.4 million Iraqis have taken refuge in Syria in the last three years. An estimated 60,000 Iraqis are fleeing their homes monthly.

In July, UNHCR doubled its special appeal for the Iraq operation to $123 million and then launched an education appeal with UNICEF for an additional $129 million, aimed at getting 150,000 more Iraqi children in neighbouring countries back to school during the 2007-2008 school year.

In another development, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller leaves Saturday on weeklong mission to Syria and Lebanon to assess the protection needs of Iraqis in both countries.

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Food and Nutrition

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Food cuts in Chad camps expose refugee women and children to exploitation, abuse

A funding shortfall has forced the World Food Programme (WFP) to cut food rations in refugee camps in eastern Chad by up to 60 per cent. As a result, Sudanese refugees in 13 camps in the east now receive about 850 calories per day, down from the minimum ration of 2,100 calories daily they used to get. The refugees are finding it difficult to cope. Clinics in the area report a significant spike in malnutrition cases, with rates as high as 19.5 per cent in Am Nabak camp.

WFP needs to raise US$ 186 million to maintain feeding programmes for refugees in Africa through the end of the year. Additionally, UNHCR is urgently seeking contributions towards the US$ 78 million it has budgeted this year for food security and nutrition programmes serving refugees in Africa.

In the meantime, the refugees experiencing ration cuts have few options. Poor soil quality, dry conditions and little access to water mean they can't plant supplemental crops as refugees in the less arid south of Chad are able to do. To try to cope, many refugee women in eastern Chad are leaving the camps in search of work in surrounding towns. They clean houses, do laundry, fetch water and firewood and work as construction labourers. Even so, they earn very little and often depend on each other for support. In the town of Iriba, for example, some 50 refugee women sleep rough each night under a tree and share their some of their meagre earnings to pay for a daily, communal meal.

They are also subject to exploitation. Sometimes, their temporary employers refuse to pay them at the end of the day. And some women and girls have resorted to prostitution to earn money to feed their families.

Ration cuts can have an impact far beyond health, reverberating through the entire community. It is not uncommon for children to be pulled out of school on market days in order to work. Many refugees use a portion of their food rations to barter for other essentials, or to get cash to pay school fees or buy supplies for their children. Small business owners like butchers, hairdressers and tailors - some of them refugees - also feel the pinch.

WFP supplies food to some 240,500 Sudanese refugees in the camps of eastern Chad. Many have been in exile for years and, because of their limited opportunities for self-sufficiency, remain almost totally dependent on outside help. The ration cuts have made an already difficult situation much worse for refugees who were already struggling.

Food cuts in Chad camps expose refugee women and children to exploitation, abuse

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

As world concern grows over the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians, including more than 200,000 refugees, UNHCR staff are working around the clock to provide vital assistance in neighbouring countries. At the political level, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres was due on Thursday (August 30) to address a closed UN Security Council session on Syria.

Large numbers have crossed into Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria. By the end of August, more than 53,000 Syrians across Lebanon had registered or received appointments to be registered. UNHCR's operations for Syrian refugees in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley resumed on August 28 after being briefly suspended due to insecurity.

Many of the refugees are staying with host families in some of the poorest areas of Lebanon or in public buildings, including schools. This is a concern as the school year starts soon. UNHCR is urgently looking for alternative shelter. The majority of the people looking for safety in Lebanon are from Homs, Aleppo and Daraa and more than half are aged under 18. As the conflict in Syria continues, the situation of the displaced Syrians in Lebanon remains precarious.

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

By mid-September, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees had crossed the border into Turkey. UNHCR estimates that half of them are children, and many have seen their homes destroyed in the conflict before fleeing to the border and safety.

The Turkish authorities have responded by building well-organized refugee camps along southern Turkey's border with Syria. These have assisted 120,000 refugees since the crisis conflict erupted in Syria. There are currently 12 camps hosting 90,000 refugees, while four more are under construction. The government has spent approximately US$300 million to date, and it continues to manage the camps and provide food and medical services.

The UN refugee agency has provided the Turkish government with tents, blankets and kitchen sets for distribution to the refugees. UNHCR also provides advice and guidelines, while staff from the organization monitor voluntary repatriation of refugees.

Most of the refugees crossing into Turkey come from areas of northern Syria, including the city of Aleppo. Some initially stayed in schools or other public buildings, but they have since been moved into the camps, where families live in tents or container homes and all basic services are available.

Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

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