ANKARA: The European Union on Monday (Sep 26) launched a scheme worth almost €350 million providing mainly Syrian refugees in Turkey with pre-paid debit cards, the biggest project yet under a landmark deal between the bloc and Ankara.
EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Christos Stylianides, in Ankara for the start of the programme, said the debit cards will help give vulnerable refugees a "sense of normality" in their lives.
The refugees will be able to use the cards in shops or institutions to pay for food, education, housing and clothing or also to withdraw cash from ATMs.
Each card will be automatically topped up with 100 Turkish lira (US$33.50) a month, giving people the chance to choose their own purchases.
Stylianides said the programme was an "unprecedented response" to an "unprecedented crisis".
"This (scheme) is, in our humanitarian field, a game-changer in the delivery of humanitarian aid. Refugees can choose what they spend money on."
Turkey is home to some three million refugees, most of them Syrian. The vast majority live in cities without direct support from non-governmental organisations and aid groups.
Supported with €348 million ($392 million) from Brussels and its member states, the scheme will be rolled out by Turkish Red Crescent and the UN World Food Programme supported by the Turkish authorities.
Applications will start in October for the scheme. Families who have children going to school will receive more cash. All refugees registered in Turkey, including Iraqis, are eligible to apply.
Stylianides suggested that the programme would also benefit Turks.
"The money will be spent in local shops, boosting local businesses and encouraging social cohesion between citizens and refugees."
The project is part of a €6 billion ($6.75 billion) deal struck in March between Brussels and Ankara to curb the migrant influx into Europe, which saw more than a million arrive in the EU last year.
There have been fears the deal could collapse with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan complaining that the promised money was not handed directly to Turkey.
In exchange for cutting the flow, Brussels also offered Turkey visa liberalisation for its citizens to visit EU countries in the Schengen area as well as accelerated membership talks.
But Ankara has threatened to withdraw from the agreement if Europe does not allow visa-free travel for Turks by next month, though the numbers coming to Europe have dropped significantly since March.