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Debit cards instead of humanitarian aid

Since civil war erupted in Syria in the spring of 2011, around 11.5 million Syrians have been forced to flee. Of these, 3.8 million have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, whilst the UN estimates that 7.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced. In 2014, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) with Danish help delivered food aid each month to almost six million people in and around Syria.

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Hatay close to the Turkish-Syrian border.
Photo: Finn Frandsen / Polfoto

Modern emergency aid to Syria

Due to hostilities as well as difficulties in obtaining authorisations to deliver emergency aid into Syria, reaching people in need poses a huge challenge. The refugee flows to neighbouring countries have created a colossal challenge for the UN and the aid organisations fighting to feed the many families. At the start of 2014, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) needed to ensure provision of food for over 2.5 million each day. This was in addition to the assistance needed for 4.25 million conflict-affected people in Syria.

Reaching so many refugees is a huge task, for which reason the WFP has tried employing new methods. Instead of conventional emergency aid, where fixed rations of, for example, rice, oil and sugar were distributed, the refugees have instead been issued with shopping vouchers or a special, electronic payment card – ‘e-card’ – which allows them to buy items in selected local shops. The refugees thus have access to a greater and more nutritious selection of goods – and they retain greater dignity by being able to choose themselves. This has also facilitated new development and growth in the areas where the refugee camps are situated. This is the first time this form of emergency aid being employed in Syria has been attempted on such a large scale. Denmark has supported the efforts, and Danish UN workers have helped develop the new approach.

Refugees buy their own groceries in local shops

Through partnerships with local enterprises, the UN has built up a large network of shops in and around refugee camps and in towns with a large presence of refugees, where the refugees are able to buy food products themselves. The method also reduces the risk of theft or mismanagement of emergency rations. Every month, each member of every refugee family is given a certain amount of money for food. The amount is enough to buy food that ensures each person gets the necessary 2,100 daily calories. In money terms, it corresponds in 2014 to each refugee receiving on average approx. DKK 200 per month to buy groceries.

Help to refugees outside the camps

With conventional emergency aid, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to reach refugees who do not live in camps, which is the case for over 80% of the Syrian refugees. Earlier, it has been difficult to reach this group of refugees, but the e-cards help address this challenge. In Lebanon alone, 700,000 refugees have received such an e-card.

Direct Danish influence

Denmark has provided considerable funding for this innovative method of emergency aid for Syrian refugees. However, Denmark has also made a more direct fingerprint: a group of Danish UN workers have participated in the development of the new emergency aid system. They have helped ensure not only an adequate number of shops placed in the right locations, but also that the shops are indeed able to deliver the right quantities of food without suddenly running out.