The European Union is desperate to keep Syrian refugees from bolting from Turkey for Europe. Now the EU is launching its biggest aid program yet: a debit card that can be used to buy whatever food, medicine or clothing a family needs, or to get cash.
The Syrian refugees are intrigued, but immediately grasp the brutal math. There are about 3 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey. Even if there really are a million of these cards — and distributing them will require a huge effort — that means 2 million Syrians in Turkey would not be getting them.
Red Crescent Director General Mehmet Gulluoglu says refugees outside the camps — which are most of them — will be able to take these cards to an ATM and get cash, up to 100 Turkish lira a month, or about $30 for each registered family member. “They can pay their rents, pay their bills or for food, whatever they need,” he says. “Because it will be certain, it will be concrete and it will be regular support.”
It will also be spent on local businesses. There have been cash-based aid programs before, but not on this scale. Jonny Hogg, spokesman for the World Food Program, says this is the biggest humanitarian relief contract ever signed by the EU. It aims to help refugees not just survive but also have a tiny bit of control over their lives again.
Some supporters have already pointed to an obvious issue: Despite the program’s admirable reach, aiming to help a million of the neediest Syrians in Turkey, how much help can they really get from 100 lira, just over $30 a month?
Hogg, the WFP spokesman, says in some cases, quite a lot: “I’ve met refugees who are living in caves because they can’t find anywhere else to live. They’ve spent the winter living in caves. A hundred Turkish lira is going to make a profound difference to these people’s lives.”
As with so much of the international response to the refugee crisis, this program is hugely ambitious — and yet not enough.