As World Bank-UNHCR study reveals jump in poverty among refugees and host communities during pandemic, cash programmes that offset impact must be scaled up in 2021.
By Lilly Carlisle in Amman, Jordan
When the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in Jordan back in March, Syrian refugee Tahani sat glued to the TV with her family worrying how the unfolding crisis would affect their health. But as lockdowns and other measures to contain the virus took hold, it was the economic impact of the pandemic that hit them hard.
Tahani lost her occasional work cleaning houses due to restrictions on movement and people’s growing fear of the virus. In a matter of weeks, the relative security that she and her family had spent so long working to establish since fleeing Syria nine years prior had vanished.
“It’s not stable, but work is work, we try and survive as best we can,” she explained. “In March, I had no job. People were nervous to let me come and clean their houses. I didn’t know what to do.”
Originally from Dara’a in southern Syria, Tahani fled her home aged just 17 and settled with her family in the northern Jordanian city of Irbid. Initially, she was afraid of the new world she suddenly found herself in. “For the first year I was scared to go outside.”
“It’s not stable, but work is work, we try and survive as best we can.”
But with encouragement from her friends and family, she gradually found the motivation to continue. From cleaning houses of her neighbors to taking a training course in hair and beauty, Tahani has done a variety of jobs to earn an income for her family over the last nine years.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, everything she had built was suddenly at risk.
In May, therefore, Tahani and her family were among the first group of refugees in Jordan considered amongst the most vulnerable to receive emergency COVID-19 cash assistance from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Since then, US$25.4 million in emergency cash assistance has been distributed to approximately 51,000 refugee families. Most recipients have received three separate payments as the financial impact of the crisis continues to bite.
A new World Bank-UNHCR report published this week examines the impact of COVID-19 on pushing Syrian refugees and their host communities in Jordan, Lebanon and the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) into poverty.
The report found that an estimated 4.4 million people in host communities, close to 1 million Syrian refugees, and a further 180,000 internally displaced Iraqis in KRI have fallen below the poverty line since the onset of the crisis.
In Jordan, poverty rates have increased by 38 percentage points among locals and 18 percent among Syrian refugees. The smaller share of Syrian refugees falling into poverty is explained by the fact that many were already living below the poverty line before the crisis, limiting how more could fall below.
The report also notes how the existence of well-established refugee registration and cash delivery systems prior to COVID-19 enabled organizations like UNHCR to quickly scale up their response and mitigate some of the worst impacts on the most vulnerable.
With the negative economic impacts of the crisis predicted to last well into 2021 and possibly beyond, extension and expansion of humanitarian support such as UNHCR cash assistance and the Jordanian Government’s Takaful cash programme for vulnerable Jordanians is essential to preventing a further increase in poverty rates.
“Because of the lockdowns, sometimes my salary is less because I am not able to work.”
For Tahani, the assistance offered a vital lifeline at the most challenging time. “The cash assistance wasn’t enough for us to realize all our dreams, but it was enough. It helped me to repay some debts and gave me peace of mind to keep going,” she said.
While unable to work during lockdown, Tahani enrolled in a job training program facilitated by UNHCR and its local partner the Jordan River Foundation (JRF). In August, after completing two months of online courses and with the help of JRF, Tahani found work at a local restaurant that makes mansaf, Jordan’s celebratory national dish of slow-cooked lamb with rice and yoghurt.
Despite this, she continues to feel the impact of the pandemic. “Weddings have been cancelled so no one is ordering as much mansaf, and because of the lockdowns, sometimes my salary is less because I am not able to work on those days,” she explained.
It will take some time before poverty rates in Jordan return to pre-COVID levels, meaning more challenging times ahead for the 750,000 registered refugees from Syria and other countries currently living there.
But having found support when she needed it most, Tahani is hopeful that life will soon return to normal, people will have weddings and share mansaf, and she and her family will once again be able to provide for themselves.
Originally published by UNHCR on 17 December 2020.