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Iris scan system provides cash lifeline to Syrian refugees in Jordan

A Syrian refugee scans her iris at a branch of Cairo Amman Bank in the Jordanian capital. Jordan is the first country in the world to use iris scan technology to enable refugees to access monthly cash assistance provided by UNHCR. Around 23,000 Syrian families living in urban areas in Jordan benefit from monthly cash assistance. © UNHCR Photo

A Syrian refugee scans her iris at a branch of Cairo Amman Bank in the Jordanian capital. Jordan is the first country in the world to use iris scan technology to enable refugees to access monthly cash assistance provided by UNHCR. Around 23,000 Syrian families living in urban areas in Jordan benefit from monthly cash assistance. © UNHCR Photo

AMMAN, Jordan, March 23 (UNHCR) Sitting in the cold, windowless basement of an apartment block that he shares with his wife and two young children in Amman, Abu Ahmad describes himself as “one of the lucky ones.”

The small damp room that serves as the family’s kitchen, bedroom and living area is included as part of his job as the building janitor, for which he also earns 70 Jordanian dinars (US$100) a month. “I’m lucky to have this job, because I can stay with my family and I’m not at risk of being caught by the police for working without a permit,” he tells visitors from UNHCR.

Despite having a job, Abu Ahmad says the family couldn’t survive without the monthly cash assistance of 100 dinars (US$140) he receives from UNHCR. The extra money enables him to buy formula milk and nappies for his one-year-old son, pay the electricity, water and heating bills, and cover the cost of his own medication.

Three years ago, the family was living in the Darayya suburb of the Syrian capital, Damascus, which at the time was rocked by daily bombardments and airstrikes. Abu Ahmed was helping to evacuate neighbours from their homes when a shell exploded beside him, resulting in the loss of most of his right foot.

A year later he was working as volunteer driver for a local bakery when a sniper’s bullet smashed through the windshield of the van and struck him in the head. Lucky to be alive, he lay unconscious in a field hospital for 20 days with a fractured skull, and his injuries left him with a neurological disorder that requires continuous and costly medication.

Finally, after three months of displacement in southern Syria’s Dera’a governorate, during which they were forced to move from abandoned schools to temporary shelters every week or two, Abu Ahmad, his heavily pregnant wife Nour and young daughter Sham left Syria for Jordan in summer 2013.

While the family were able to secure the Jordanian sponsor they needed to leave Za’atari refugee camp and move to Amman, even working as a janitor, Abu Ahmad says their first year as refugees was extremely tough. “I can’t describe how difficult it was. We only had one mattress, no change of clothes. We used the mattress as a pillow and just slept on the floor.”

Unable to get by on what little they had, the family was forced to borrow money, accumulating debts of 1,200 dinars in their first year. Then, five months ago after an assessment by UNHCR staff, Abu Ahmad was told that they would begin receiving monthly cash assistance.

“It was a happy moment for the family,” he says, remembering when he first heard the news. “Life is still difficult for us in this situation, but it is much better now than it was before.”

The first week of every month, Abu Ahmad receives a text message telling him that the money has been deposited in his bank account. Then he makes the two-kilometre trip to the bank to withdraw his cash.

Thanks to a partnership with Cairo Amman Bank, Jordan is the first country in the world to use iris scan technology to enable refugees to access their funds without the need for a bank card or PIN code. Currently, around 23,000 Syrian families living in urban areas in Jordan benefit from monthly cash assistance.

The technology brings a number of advantages, according to UNHCR Representative in Jordan Andrew Harper. “This is probably the most effective and efficient assistance programme anywhere in the world. Refugees use their irises as a form of identification, so this makes it fraud proof,” he says.

The system also has very low overheads, meaning that for every dollar donated to the cash assistance programme more that 98 cents ends up in the pockets of refugees.

“Probably one of the most important things is that it reinforces the dignity of refugees. They no longer have to go to a UNHCR office and line up to receive their cash assistance. They can go to an ATM machine of one of our participating banks, just as anyone else would, and take money out,” Harper adds.

Thanks to the success of the system in Jordan, there are plans to expand it to other countries in the region as part of the Syria crisis response. Ultimately, Harper believes it will become the model for UNHCR cash assistance programmes around the world.

Abu Ahmad says the cash assistance he receives has helped to make a very difficult situation more bearable while he waits for peace in Syria so that his family can go home. “I wake up every morning telling myself that this is a temporary situation and that things will get better soon, but it’s been so long now and nothing has changed.”

By Charlie Dunmore in Amman, Jordan