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UNHCR takes part in mass aid distribution in Syria

UNHCR takes part in mass aid distribution in Syria

UNHCR and the World Food Programme warn of a funding shortage as they launch a massive aid distribution in Syria.
12 February 2008
People gather in central Damascus for a joint UNHCR/WFO aid distribution.

DAMASCUS, Syria, February 12 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency and its sister organization, the World Food Programme (WFP), warned of a funding shortage on Tuesday after launching their biggest joint aid distribution to date in Syria.

On Sunday, UNHCR and WFP staff began distributing food and non-food items, including blankets, soap and mattresses, to 145,000 vulnerable refugees, some three times more than helped in previous distributions. The operation, which was launched in an old fairground in the middle of Damascus, will take five weeks.

The two agencies hope to reach tens of thousands of other refugees during further planned distributions this year, but said that they were far short of appeal targets and would find it difficult to conduct future distributions.

In January, UNHCR and WFP called on donors to provide fresh funding for their operations helping hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Iraqis and those forced to flee their homes by sectarian violence and seek refuge in neighbouring countries such as Syria and Jordan.

The UN refugee agency appealed for US$261 million, including US$131 million for Syria, and has to date received few pledges. The United States, however, was expected to announce a big donation later Tuesday. WFP has only received US$5 million of the US$43 million it sought - barely enough for two months.

"Despite a generous response from donors for UNHCR's assistance and protection programmes in 2007, the gains that have been made are under threat due to a lack of funding in 2008. Apart from contributions from the US, no other state has thus far contributed to UNHCR's appeal to continue and expand its critical programmes to address the most basic needs of Iraq's displaced," Andrew Harper, head of UNHCR's Iraq Support Unit, said in Geneva Tuesday.

UNHCR and WFP are particularly concerned about food shortages if donors fail to offer more funds. "Food assistance for refugees is crucial to prevent the worst consequences of the increased poverty of Iraqi refugees," said Laurens Jolles, UNHCR's representative in Syria. "While we should be preparing now for the next distribution [in April], we simply have no resources to do so," said his WFP counterpart in Syria, Pippa Bradford.

Jolles said UNHCR's operations could also be affected unless more pledges started coming in. "As the number of refugees needing support continues to rise, we are aware that we will need more funding to sustain this operation as the year moves on."

The aid distribution is being conducted by UNHCR partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. WFP will be giving each refugee a two-month supply of food, including staples such as rice, oil and lentils. In addition, UNHCR gives a complementary ration of tea, sugar, tomato paste and pasta.

UNHCR is also providing an additional one-time distribution of non-food items such as mattresses, blankets and soap. The overall cost of the complementary food and non-food items is almost US$9 million.

On Sunday, thousands of refugees, many of whom had never approached UNHCR, turned up at the Damascus fairground to ask about the food distribution. Among them was a disabled man with his two small children who managed to get their names on the distribution list. "This will make a huge difference. We have no food, no money at home and this is the only help we are receiving," the man said.

Meanwhile, the refugee agency is expanding its operations all over Syria through mobile registration. The first registrations are taking place in the north of Syria, where some of the poorest Iraqi refugees are known to live.

It is estimated that some 2 million Iraqis have fled to neighbouring countries, while a further 2.4 million Iraqis are internally displaced. UNHCR's programmes target the most vulnerable for assistance. In Syria, UNHCR has registered more than 150,000 refugees since January 2007.

WFP's operation to provide food assistance to some 360,000 Iraqi refugees in Syria is part of a regional operation that includes helping feed 750,000 of the most vulnerable Iraqis displaced within their country. WFP Iraq is facing a 75 per cent shortfall in what it needs to feed internally displaced Iraqis.

By Sybella Wilkes in Damascus, Syria