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Cash transfers—A better way of reaching refugees

Baby Mawther eighteen months recieving toys as gifts from IKEA during a home vist by UNHCR syaff and a team from IKEA norway . This is the Sulimain family. Amman Jordan

Baby Mawther eighteen months recieving toys as gifts from IKEA during a home vist by UNHCR syaff and a team from IKEA norway . This is the Sulimain family. Amman Jordan. © UNHCR / Sebastian Rich

Fatima, a Syrian refugee now living in the Jordanian capital of Amman, hasn’t heard from her husband in eight months. He stayed behind in Aleppo, Syria, to look after his elderly parents. She and her seven children live in a single, unheated room with barely enough space to lie down at night.  A few months ago, Fatima began receiving cash assistance of $120 JOD ($169 USD) per month from UNHCR, which covers most of the cost of her rent. “Before that I had to borrow money to pay the rent, and I was covered in debts,” she says. The cash assistance also means that her 10-year-old son Ali no longer has to spend up to six hours a day selling clothes at a local market to make extra money. He is now attending school and dreams of becoming a doctor.

Unlike what many Canadians perceive, not all refugees live in camps. For example, in Jordan—home to millions of Syrian refugees—over 80 per cent of them live within the community, outside of UNHCR’s traditional safety net.

Many of these families have been relying on relatives or friends for their survival. But after years of doing this, many families have run out of options. Two out of every three Syrian families in Jordan live below the poverty line, most in overcrowded, decaying rooms. Almost half live without heat and 20 per cent without a toilet. Children who used to go to school are sometimes working on the streets to help support their families.

Instead of UNHCR procuring and distributing containers of water, packages of food or blankets—which are expensive to distribute and not always what families need—refugees in Jordan are given a monthly cash card that allows them to buy the things they need the most.

UNHCR has used cash assistance programs for decades with great success. After an in-depth study, 21,000 selected Syrian families in Jordan have been receiving cash assistance since mid-2012.

Living in the Shadows, a 2014 UNHCR Jordan Home Visits Report, showed that after they received monthly cash assistance, the number of refugee families living in poverty ($71 USD) was reduced by 20 per cent.

Cash assistance also restores freedom of choice—allowing families to adjust their spending where they require it the most. Overwhelmingly, families use the money for rent, food, health and children’s needs.

Cash assistance also stops many families from a dangerous slide into child exploitation and/or poor health. The same study showed that one out of every three Syrian families in Jordan was forced to take their children out of school to help support the family. Those receiving cash assistance were more likely to keep children in school, dramatically reducing the risk of children being exploited or abused on the streets. And when children are sick, families use their assistance for urgent medical expenses.

Because they are injecting revenue into the local economy by purchasing goods, families receiving cash assistance integrate better into their adopted home.

The cash transfer card is also advantageous from a donor and administrative outlook: 97 cents of every dollar donated to UNHCR that is used for the cash transfer program goes directly to the refugee family, a more efficient use of funds.

Every month families withdraw their cash using an ATM card. State-of-the-art iris scanning technology means that only the family that qualifies for cash assistance can use the card, so it can’t be used if lost, stolen or sold.

Whenever conditions will allow, UNHCR is increasingly shifting to a cash assistance program.