Syria: Food distribution to start for vulnerable Iraqi refugees

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at today's press briefing 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.