UN launches phone-based food voucher scheme for Iraqi refugees in Syria

Iraqi refugee in Damascus checks her mobile phone food voucher

27 October 2009 – Food vouchers can now be sent to Iraqi refugee families living in Syria via text message, thanks to a new pilot project by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP).

The scheme will allow refugees living in the Syrian capital, Damascus, to receive codes for virtual food vouchers on their mobile telephones which they can use to purchase rice, wheat, lentils, cheese, eggs and other items that cannot be distributed in conventional aid baskets.

“This pilot project will allow WFP to meet the needs of refugees living in a city where food is available but they are unable to afford it,” said Daly Belgasmi, the agency’s Regional Director for the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

Each of the 1,000 Iraqi families will receive one voucher per person, worth $22, every two months. After each transaction, they will receive updated balances by text message.

“People will no longer need to queue at food distribution points or travel long distances to distribution centres,” according to WFP Syria Country Director Muhannad Hadi. “They will also be able to have a more diversified diet, based on their own personal choices and preferences.”

Although phone messages and smart cards have been used in the past to transfer cash to those in need, this is believed to be the first time food vouchers have been distributed utilizing cell phone technology.

Syria’s Ministry of Economy and Trade will provide food items through its stores in the Jaramana and Sayeda Zeinab neighbourhoods in Damascus, where most Iraqi refugees live.

The mobile phone service provider MTN donated SIM cards for the project, which is set to run for four months but could be extended depending on the success of the pilot programme.

There are currently over 1.2 million uprooted Iraqis in Syria, according to Government figures, of whom 130,000 regularly receive food aid and other assistance from WFP and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

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