Almost all refugees interviewed by IRIN at two food distribution points in the Damascus suburb of Duma said they were selling some of the rations they get from WFP and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
"I sell the food so that I can pay the rent and buy medicine," said Anmark, a refugee from Iraq. "I sell rice worth SYP 2,000 [US$44] for just SYP 500."
Zaida, who fled Baghdad after her family was threatened because her husband worked at a European embassy, said rent was the priority for most refugees. "We need a roof over our heads more than food. "I get SYP 5,500 [$120] in assistance from the UNHCR every month and food from the WFP."
WFP has been handing out food rations since January 2008 after a UN study found that over half the refugees skipped a meal to enable their children to eat two meals a day. It supplies basic food items such as rice, pulses and oil - enough to meet 50 percent of the daily calorie intake - and this is supplemented by UNHCR aid and other donations.
Most of the refugees fled Iraq in or before 2006 and in many cases their resources are running out. Selling food can raise vital money for other expenses.
Food sold to buy food
"I sell some food so I can buy meat, vegetables, milk and cheese as well as tinned food," said Lana, a young woman who fled Baghdad in 2006. Some mothers said the only way they could provide a varied diet to their children was by selling some of the rations.
Another refugee, Hamid, a former hotel worker in Baghdad who registered with the UNHCR in June 2007, said he sold all his rations to buy street food. "I have no wife and do not know how to cook. I buy sandwiches and snacks with the money."
Refugees can register with the UNHCR to qualify for financial aid, but WFP only distributes food. Both agencies say they know some of the food is being sold to fund other expenses.
"It is a fact that some Iraqi refugees are selling their rations, as happens around the world," said Abdullah Mawazini, a WFP public information officer in Syria. "It is an exchange rather than selling for profit. We understand you cannot eat rice every day of the year."
WFP defends policy
"It is our policy not to give money as it can be abused - spent on cigarettes, a cell phone or gambling. The study we did found food and rent were the biggest costs. We cannot do much about accommodation - we can't buy up a neighbourhood - but we can give food."
Mawazini said refugees also needed more awareness of the free services provided by other UN agencies, such as medical care. Food is just one of the ways the UN helps the Iraqi refugees.
Without such assistance UN agencies fear some refugees might be forced into taking dangerous jobs, commercial sex work, or sending their children to work rather than school.
The UNHCR and WFP say the handouts currently reach 177,000 of the 1.2 million refugees the Syrian government says have fled to Syria and been granted visas since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. They aim to reach over 360,000.