Debit Cards Come to the Aid of Syrian Refugees in Turkey
Syrian refugees wait in line for food at a Turkish refugee camp -- not crowding around an aid truck but queuing at an ordinary supermarket to pay for goods using electronic debit cards.
Under the experimental project launched by the U.N. World Food Program and the Turkish Red Crescent, thousands of refugees who have fled the conflict raging in their homeland now receive cards charged with aid credits rather than boxes of basic supplies.
"We started to use this smart card system because it respects human dignity and offers Syrian people aid, in a less blatant way," said Ahmet Lutfi Akar, head of the Turkish Red Crescent.
"It is much better than delivering aid to people in boxes when they have no chance to choose. In stores they can buy whatever they want based on their taste and preferences," he told AFP.
Nearly 22,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey were benefiting from the "Food e-card" project at the end of November, according to the WFP.
The scheme has been rolled out at Oncupinar camp in the southern border province of Kilis, one of the largest with more than 13,000 refugees, as well as in several other camps in the neighboring Hatay province.
"Further expansion into other areas (in Turkey) is planned with the objective of reaching 100,000 beneficiaries by mid-2013," said WFP regional director Daly Belgasmi.
The cards handed out to Syrian refugees in camps are loaded with 80 Turkish lira ($45, 35 euros) a month which officials say is adequate to support a balanced diet.
"We have everything in the camp," Imed Muhib, a 48-year-old religious teacher who said he lost his three children in violence in Syria, told AFP outside a shop at Oncupinar, a vast container city on the border.
"We are able to meet our needs with the cards which help us to choose whatever we want, instead of getting whatever is given to us."
The Visa Electron cards, supplied by Turkey's Halkbank, are accepted only in certain stores operated by a private Turkish retail chain.
The supermarkets are stocked with fresh vegetables, meat and a wide variety of staple food products and basic necessities.
But there are some restrictions. Purchases of chocolate and cigarettes are not allowed with the cards, and alcohol is not sold in the shops.
-- 'A very safe system' --
"The cards keep us busy," said Hasna Sufan, a mother of four whose husband Mohammed is a fighter with the rebel Free Syrian Army. "I like shopping together with my kids when my husband is away."
At the register, the products are scanned and so is the user's finger, which is checked against the fingerprint stored on the card's electronic chip.
"This is a very safe system. It is easy to block the cards immediately in case of any abuse," Akar said.
Oncupinar is often used as a showpiece by the Turkish authorities for visits by foreign dignitaries as it boasts shops, schools, day care centers and mosques and every container has its own kitchen, bedroom and bathroom.
Turkey is currently home to more than 120,000 refugees but officials say the actual number could run as high as 200,000 if it includes exiled military and political figures as well as civilians living outside the camps.
Amid concerns about whether it could cope with the relentless flow of refugees, Turkey has pushed in vain for a safe zone for the protection of civilians inside Syria, but has kept its doors open nevertheless even after saying it could not take in more than 100,000.
The WFP and Red Crescent said that while one potential consequence of humanitarian programs is that an influx of aid can distort economies, they hope the combination of technology and using local suppliers used in the “Food e card” scheme could strengthen the local economy and serve as a role model in the region.
Officials hope it can be transferred to Jordan and Lebanon, which are also struggling to cope with an influx of Syrian refugees.
"This is a model project in the region," said Jean-Yves Lequime, emergency coordinator at WFP. "We'd like to use this model in other countries like Lebanon."
But Matthew Nims of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) said the system was successful because of the advanced Turkish economy and banking system.
"In other places in the world maybe the local market economy would not be able to support such an influx of people."