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Iraqi refugees in Syria hit by increased food and fuel prices

News Stories, 25 April 2008

© UNHCR Syria
Meals on Wheels: A Syrian Arab Red Crescent worker brings a trolley-load of food to a distribution point in Damascus.

DAMASCUS, Syria, April 25 (UNHCR) Life is steadily becoming even worse for Iraqi refugees in Syria. Soaring global fuel and food prices mean that once prosperous Iraqi professionals are now joining daily queues for food assistance.

The food lines have been growing since late last year as thousands of Iraqi refugees began running out of savings after months, or years, in exile. The rising prices have made tens of thousands more Iraqis dependent on help from the UN refugee agency and its sister organization, the World Food Programme (WFP).

Earlier this week, daily food assistance was stepped up to include more than 150,000 people, which compares to the 33,000 Iraqis who were being helped by UNHCR and WFP in September. The hand-outs, organized with the help of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, include rations of rice, oil, sugar, tomato paste and other essential food items.

Among the refugees coming to the distribution for the first time in the past week were doctors, engineers and teachers, who say they never imagined that one day they would have to queue to receive food. "I am surviving on rice and beans. No meat. No milk products. Life has no pleasure any more," said one man, who used to own a food-filled grocery story in Baghdad.

Waiting in line was George,* a Christian from Baghdad. "We thank God for this food," he said. "Our survival completely depends upon it." Formerly a soldier in Iraq, his career came to an abrupt end when the Iraqi armed forces were dissolved in 2003 by the U.S.-led military coalition that overthrew President Saddam Hussein's regime.

He and his family fled to Syria in 2006 after being threatened by militiamen. "We have no family or friends to turn to. Everyone is poor and getting poorer. We are dependent on this help," George explained.

Nearby stood Hussam,* who spent his career in the food and beverage business, working as director of the Pepsi Cola factory in Baghdad. He never used to think about the cost of food, but in recent weeks it has become his main concern. "A few weeks ago we used to be able to buy a litre of oil for 15 Syrian pounds (30 US cents). Now I have to pay 30," he complained.

Hussam is counting on the sale of his house in Baghdad to keep the family going for a while, but fellow-Iraqi Mohamed* has exhausted all his reserves. In a fax sent to UNHCR last weekend, he wrote: "Because of unbearable costs in Damascus I am moving to the north of the country. During the last two years we have exhausted our savings. We are a respectable family. It is hard to beg. I will need to sell my phone before we move and I am hoping against hope that you can call me before I do this. Please help me with food."

Luckily Mohamed included his e-mail address because he had already sold his phone when the UNHCR hotline team tried calling.

According to the World Bank, global food prices have increased by 83 percent over the past three years. This trend is having a severe affect on refugees, who are watching their savings run out. A recent UNHCR and WFP briefing for representatives of donor countries emphasized the increased cost of procuring food and other aid items for refugees.

The agencies stressed that increased donor commitment would be essential to maintain food assistance at current levels. "It will hurt the refugees if we had to scale down our assistance. As it is, we are providing the bare minimum for people to survive on," said Zahra Mirghani, a senior community service officer for UNHCR.

Mirghani added that during the past three months her team of community workers and outreach volunteers had come across several families who were unable to afford more than one meal a day.

UNHCR Senior Community Services Clerk Jida Malad returned on Thursday from a meeting with refugees in the crowded suburb of Seyida Zeinab reporting that all the Iraqis she met were facing increasing hardship. In some cases they were planning to move to areas of Syria where the cost of living was cheaper, in other cases families were doubling up in apartments.

She said that some families were going back to Iraq, adding that in many cases some members of the family did not want to leave Syria and divisions had opened up between relatives. "In some cases the father will take the risk of returning, but won't let the whole family take the risk," she said, adding that several men had disappeared or been killed after going back.

* Names have been changed for protection reasons

By Aline Jaccottet, Hussam Mukhtar, Carole Lalève and Sybella Wilkes in Damascus, Syria




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Food and Nutrition

UNHCR strives to improve the nutritional status of all the people it serves.

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

Emergency food distribution in South Sudan's Jonglei state

Humanitarian organizations in South Sudan are working to deliver emergency assistance to some of the tens of thousands of people displaced by armed conflict in Jonglei state. Most of those uprooted have fled into the bush or have walked for days to reach villages away from the fighting. Others have journeyed even greater distances to find sanctuary in the neighbouring countries of Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. Gaining access to those affected in an insecure and isolated area has been a significant challenge for aid workers. Since mid-July, an airlift has been providing food supplies to families living in two previously inaccessible villages and where humanitarian agencies have established temporary bases. As part of the "cluster approach" to humanitarian emergencies, which brings together partners working in the same response sector, UNHCR is leading the protection cluster to ensure the needs of vulnerable individuals among the displaced are addressed.

Emergency food distribution in South Sudan's Jonglei state

Crisis in Iraq: Displacement

UNHCR and its partners estimate that out of a total population of 26 million, some 1.9 million Iraqis are currently displaced internally and more than 2 million others have fled to nearby countries. While many people were displaced before 2003, increasing numbers of Iraqis are now fleeing escalating sectarian, ethnic and general violence. Since January 2006, UNHCR estimates that more than 800,000 Iraqis have been uprooted and that 40,000 to 50,000 continue to flee their homes every month. UNHCR anticipates there will be approximately 2.3 million internally displaced people within Iraq by the end of 2007. The refugee agency and its partners have provided emergency assistance, shelter and legal aid to displaced Iraqis where security has allowed.

In January 2007, UNHCR launched an initial appeal for US$60 million to fund its Iraq programme. Despite security issues for humanitarian workers inside the country, UNHCR and partners hope to continue helping up to 250,000 of the most vulnerable internally displaced Iraqis and their host communities

Posted on 12 June 2007

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