December 1, 2014 / 11:39 AM / in 3 years

WFP suspends food aid for 1.7 million Syrian refugees

Syrian refugees shop in a hypermarket after receiving their humanitarian aid shopping vouchers at al-Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, February 6, 2014.Muhammad Hamed

GENEVA (Reuters) - A lack of funds has forced the United Nations to stop providing food vouchers for 1.7 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Monday.

"Without WFP vouchers, many families will go hungry. For refugees already struggling to survive the harsh winter, the consequences of halting this assistance will be devastating," said the U.N. agency, which needs $64 million to support the refugees for the rest of December.

Suspension of the assistance program comes as many vulnerable Syrian families enter their fourth bleak winter in difficult living conditions after fleeing a homeland racked by conflict since March 2011.

"This couldn’t come at a worse time," said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres in a statement.

The impact could be particularly devastating in Lebanon, where more than 1.1 million Syrian refugees -- one-quarter of the country’s permanent population -- are scattered across some 1,700 communities, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Many live in makeshift settlements, sheds, garages and unfinished buildings.

The electronic voucher program has already injected about $800 million into local shops in the countries hosting refugees, and WFP will immediately resume it if new funding arrives, it said in the statement.

It was not clear how hungry Syrian refugees might fill the gap left by WFP suspending its voucher program.

WFP had warned last month that it might be forced to impose such a suspension and said it might have to announce a similar measure in January for people reliant on aid within Syria, where at least 7.6 million people are internally displaced.

The Rome-based agency has already cut rations for 4.25 million people it is providing food supplies to in Syria.

"WFP will not be able to continue its life-saving operations inside Syria in February without additional funding," WFP spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs told Reuters on Monday.

The U.N. refugee agency has said that a lack of cash has forced it to prioritize as it helps those in need prepare for winter, with preference for people at higher, colder altitudes and vulnerable refugees such as newborn babies.

Reporting by Tom Miles and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Catherine Evans

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