October 27, 2009 / 12:24 PM / in 8 years

UN to send Iraqi refugees food aid by text message

* World Food Programme launches mobile phone pilot project

* Electronic food credits redeemable for milk, cheese, eggs

GENEVA, Oct 27 (Reuters) - Iraqi refugees in Syria will this week start receive U.N. text messages they can redeem for fresh food in local shops, the World Food Programme said on Tuesday.

The “virtual vouchers” worth $22 per family every two months will supplement traditional aid which rarely includes perishable goods, WFP spokeswoman Emilia Casella said, announcing the pilot project supported by the mobile company MTN.

“They will be able to exchange their electronic vouchers for rice, wheat flour, lentils, chickpeas, oil and canned fish, as well as cheese and eggs -- items that cannot usually be included in conventional aid baskets,” she told a Geneva news briefing.

There are more than 1.2 million Iraqis now living in Syria, according to government figures. Many of those who fled war and insurgent violence in their homeland initially had some savings and possessions but are increasingly desperate, Casella said.

Virtually all the 130,000 Iraqis who now regularly receive WFP food assistance in Syria have mobile phones, and the U.N. agency often sends text messages to tell them where food staples will be distributed, the spokeswoman said.

The Rome-based WFP, which aims to feed 105 million people in 74 countries this year, has never before used mobile phones to deliver food vouchers.

The Syrian pilot will initially reach 1,000 beneficiaries in and around Damascus, and may be extended, the WFP said. Casella described it as a way to help refugees eat a more diversified diet while also supporting local farmers and businesses.

“We are not giving food away, we are actually creating an additional market for local shopkeepers,” she said. (Reporting by Laura MacInnis)

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