More than six months after a new common card system for aid distribution was introduced in Lebanon, Syrian refugees say there is still widespread frustration and misunderstanding about the card and how it works.
The joint debit card, known as the "red card", consolidates the efforts of the World Food Programme (WFP), UN children’s fund (UNICEF), UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Lebanon Cash Consortium (LCC).
Its intention was to improve access to aid by enabling card-holders to purchase food themselves from any of 480 WFP-contracted shops or withdraw cash from any automated teller machine (ATM) in Lebanon.
The card was introduced in October with the promise that it would facilitate communication with more than one million Syrian refugees in 2,000 towns.
But a large number of refugees still say they have not yet received it, while others say they have not been able to use it to access humanitarian, food or financial aid.
Some refugees who spoke with Al-Mashareq said that even though they received the card, they were only able to access the winter aid, as was the case with Aleppo native Aisha Mohammed, 31, who lives with her family in a camp in Bar Elias in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.
"I have been living in the camp with my family for three years," she told Al-Mashareq. "We registered with UNHCR and received a white card that enabled us to withdraw winter cash aid over five months in the winter."
Mohammed, whose husband works in agriculture and whose five children attend a public school in the afternoon, said she received the new red card in December, after being informed of its availability via text message.
"I could only withdraw $147 in winter aid with it. I could not obtain food aid with the card," she said, explaining that she also expected to receive food aid of $27 per person per month with the card.
"I was expecting to receive this food aid, which for our family of seven totals $189, but that did not happen," she said. "Meanwhile, other families are receiving the winter aid, as well as the monthly food aid, with it."
She eventually learned after checking with UNHCR that the card entitles her "only to winter aid, which is the aid I have been receiving from the outset".
The key problem with the new card is that many people do not understand "how the card functions and the limits on how much they can benefit from it", said UNHCR external relations officer Khaled Kabbara.
"Not everyone who has the common card is entitled to withdraw all the aid provided by relief agencies operating in Lebanon," he told Al-Mashareq.
Some refugees used to have only a food aid card, and after exchanging it with the common card they are able to withdraw only food aid with it, he said.
"Those who used to have a winter aid card and a separate card for food aid, now withdraw both types of aid with the common card, and the same applies to those who hold a protection card," Kabbara said.
To hold a common card does not mean cardholders can withdraw every type of aid, only the aid they were eligible for originally, he said.
"There was some confusion among many refugees, as they thought the common card entitles them to all types of aid," he said.
The distribution of the previous cards, as well as the new one "is based on an assessment of the status and needs of every family", he explained.
"Relief agencies distributed common cards to 900,000 refugees out of 1,011,000 refugees registered with UNHCR, all of whom received winter aid of $147 per month for five months, and continue to receive monthly food aid with the common card at $27 per month per member," he said.
Many types of aid
Kabbara explained that 55,000 Syrian families, or 22% of those registered, receive $175 in cash aid provided by the participating agencies.
Meanwhile, 8,000 people receive the cash aid allocated for the most needy cases, Kabbara said, which ranges between $200 and $300 per month, and is paid out for a three- to 12- month period.
"We continue to distribute the common card to refugees who were unable to receive it in the winter, and to qualify new families to receive it after assessing their social and economic status," he said.
"We offer many types of aid, and each refugee receives the aid specified by the assessment conducted by the agencies of their needs," he said.
Every type of aid has its own specific assessment mechanism, he added.
Anyone deemed eligible to receive one specific type of aid or all of them is issued a common card, otherwise he is not issued one, Kabbara said.