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U.N. food agency to double aid to Iraqi refugees

The members of U.N. World Food Program seek to double food distribution to thousands of Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan despite a current funding shortfall.

At a press conference held in Damascus, WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran said the agency has distributed food aid to nearly 50,000 Iraqis in Syria and hopes to increase the figure to 114,000 within a month with additional donations from member countries.

"The WFP will issue a new emergency appeal that would double food distribution to Iraqi refugees in Syria," she told reporters. Sheeran said the emergency appeal would be made "soon" but did not say when.

However, the organization also said it was facing a 38 percent funding shortfall on its current US$5.6 million operation in Syria.

Sheeran, who is on a three-day visit to Syria to discuss the issue of Iraqi refugees, said the agency was working "very constructively" with the Syrian government and U.N. organizations to address the refugee problem.

Syria is home to some 1.5 million Iraqi refugees and says their influx has strained its education, health and housing systems, pushing the government to call for international assistance and tighten visa requirements. The country has estimated that the cost of providing services for the Iraqi refugees in Syria is US$1.6 billion a year.

Sheeran said some Iraqi refugees were unable to meet their basic food needs. About a third of Iraqi respondents in a recent U.N. assessment said they skipped one meal a day to feed their children, she said.

The assessment, conducted by WFP in collaboration with the U.N.'s refugee agency and the Syrian Red Crescent, showed that nearly 60 percent of the respondents resorted to buying less expensive and often less nutritious foods to cope with food prices that have increased dramatically.

On Sunday, Sheeran met separately with Syrian Prime Minister Mohammad Naji Otari and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem to discuss the issue of Iraqi refugees in Syria and the "social, education and health services provided to them by Syria," the official news agency SANA reported.