ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — The European Union on Monday launched a 348 million-euro ($391 million) aid project to help up to a million of the most vulnerable refugees in Turkey — part of a landmark EU deal with Turkey aimed at curbing the flow of migrants to Europe.
The refugees, living outside of camps, are to receive debit cards that will allow them to buy their own food and pay for other basic needs. The cards would be topped up monthly, with payments dependent on the size and needs of the families. The program has been billed as the EU's largest humanitarian program.
"I am here today in person to demonstrate that the EU stands with Turkey, "said EU Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Commissioner Christos Stylianides at the program's launch.
"An unprecedented crisis requires an unprecedented response," Stylianides said. "We are launching a ground-breaking humanitarian program to respond to this crisis."
The program is part of an agreement the EU has with Turkey to provide a total of 3 billion euros in 2016 and 2017 to help Turkey support Syrian migrants. The EU has also agreed to fast track membership talks and ease visa restrictions for Turkish citizens traveling to Europe in return for Turkey's cooperation in stopping migrants heading to Europe.
However, plans to loosen visa rules came to a standstill after Turkey balked at the EU's demand that it relax its anti-terrorism laws.
Turkey has criticized the EU for alleged delays in the disbursement of the funds and the fact that the money is not being sent to Turkey directly to spend on the refugees.
"We welcome the EU ... support," said Omer Celik, the Turkish minister in charge of EU affairs. "But we have criticisms concerning the way this support is being transferred to Turkey. For it to be transferred via civil society organizations slows the process down."
"We don't want this aid for Turkey, we don't need this aid. We want this aid to provide better health and education services to the oppressed," Celik said earlier, during a joint news conference with Stylianides.
Stylianides said 652 million euros in funds have been contracted out, of which 467 million euros had already been paid.
The aid program launched on Monday is to be administered by the World Food Program, with the help of the Turkish Red Crescent, the Turkish crisis management agency and the Turkish ministry for family and social policy. The European Commission says safeguards are in place to ensure the money is correctly spent.
Turkey is home to an estimated 3 million refugees. Turkey's government says the amount the state and Turkish civic society organizations have spent on the refugees since the start of the civil war in Syria has exceeded $25 billion.
"As the numbers show, the assistance provided by the international community to these efforts by Turkey has remained little and insufficient," Celik said.