New York - Syrian refugees are leaving grocery stores with empty shopping bags this week. A UN-backed "e-card" system had enabled millions of the displaced to buy food in Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan; but funds dried up on December 1 and families now struggle to put food on the table.

It's winter. They have nowhere to go. Without food assistance, they have nowhere else to turn. Some of them have been out of their homes since 2011; living in exile is really difficult to handle.

- Joelle Eid, WFP spokeswoman, Amman

The UN's World Food Programme (WFP), which runs the debit card-like scheme, cannot recharge accounts for some 1.7 million Syrian refugees with their December allowances because donors have not dug deeply enough into their pockets.

Joelle Eid, an Amman-based WFP spokeswoman, said cash-strapped refugee families may take drastic steps - by removing children from school and sending them to work, or even returning to Syria, where fighting has claimed some 200,000 lives.

"One woman told me that if her family was going to be hungry in Jordan, they might as well be hungry in their own country and in their own homes. You cannot imagine how parents feel," Eid told Al Jazeera. 

"It's winter. They have nowhere to go. Without food assistance, they have nowhere else to turn. Some of them have been out of their homes since 2011; living in exile is really difficult to handle."

Some 800,000 of Syria's 1.1 million refugees in Lebanon, together with another 450,000 in Jordan, have already lost the use of their e-cards. Those in Turkey and Egypt face a December 13 cut-off, said WFP's Muhannad Hadi.

E-cards won praise for allowing refugees to shop around and choose what to buy. The system, backed by MasterCard, saw cards credited monthly with roughly $30 per person - enough to buy the daily equivalent of 2,100 calories.

Through this scheme, as much as $800m has been injected into the local economies of Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan. Refugees spend money and benefit local shopkeepers and a host community that may also face hardship. 

But the simplicity of the system is also its weakness.

"We launch an appeal, and then go through the rest of the year hoping," Cairo-based WFP spokeswoman Abeer Etefa told Al Jazeera. "It's been that way since the beginning - a hand to mouth operation. 

"Every couple of months we get funding that keeps us going for another two or three months."

The scheme has not been stopped because of unfulfilled pledges, said Etefa. Instead, it is inherently fragile and depends on continued donations. Refugees will go hungry until donors come forward with new funds.

Aid workers are often accused of magnifying crises to secure donations. In the case of feeding Syria's 3.2 million refugees, WFP officials say they were surprised to run out of cash in a conflict that has been at the top of the news agenda.

"This is the first time we've ever stopped or reduced our lifeline assistance to Syrian refugees since the emergency started in 2011," added Etefa. "Our staff on the ground face a difficult reality of explaining to people why they are going to supermarkets to find out their cards no longer work."

Eid blames "donor fatigue". The UN needs cash for five "high-level emergencies", including an Ebola crisis that has ravaged West African economies and a civil war in South Sudan that could yield a new wave of bloodletting now that the rainy season is over.

This year's $1.72m WFP appeal to feed Syrian refugees is short by $704,000. The United States ($450m), UK ($137m) and Germany ($82m) head a list of mostly western and developed donor nations. 

It can't be business as usual, donors must find more predictable forms of funding for a crisis that sadly has no end in sight.

- Ariane Rummery, a spokeswoman for  UNHCR

Charities say they struggle to get cash from so-called "non-traditional donors", including oil-rich Gulf sheikhdoms. So far, Kuwait ($25m) is trailed by Saudi Arabia ($5m) and the United Arab Emirates ($4.8m) in helping feed Syrian refugees.

A recent US donation covered the $70m needed to feed Syrian refugees in November. WFP now needs $64m to credit e-cards for December, and has called for donations from the public. Without funding, WFP says it will also need to cut food aid within Syria in February.

"At this point, my colleagues are approaching any country that might help; be it the Gulf states, be it our traditional donors," said Eid.

It is just the latest tragedy to befall a people who live in tents, garages and building sites in neighbouring countries after fleeing a civil war between government troops, rebels and Islamist groups that shows no signs of abating as its fourth anniversary draws closer.

Winter will make matters worse. Last year, highland areas saw snow and sub-zero temperatures as Syrian children, displaced by the fighting, lived in tented camps with little more than sandals and T-shirts for warmth.

Overall, UN appeals for funding Syria's emergency response are less than half-funded. For Ariane Rummery, a spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, there is no surprise that much-needed schemes are curtailed when coffers run dry.

"Sadly it's normal that appeals are underfunded; what's different here is the scale of the situation. So the gaps are so much bigger," she told Al Jazeera. "It can't be business as usual, donors must find more predictable forms of funding for a crisis that sadly has no end in sight."

This is small comfort for Khaldun Kaddah, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee who watches his country being torn apart from across the Jordanian border.

"They want us to go back and die in Syria," he told AFP news agency. "Shame on them... Western countries talk too much about human rights and the truth is that they do not care for our basic rights."

Source: Al Jazeera