Taking a bank card to a cash machine in Beirut, Syrian widow Manar Al Sayer taps in a PIN and withdraws a few Lebanese pounds.
Cash in hand, she can now prioritize her monthly spending for herself
and her three children, Aseel, six, Abdullah, nine, and Osaima 12.
“I allocate this cash assistance so that my children can attend the morning shift at school,” she explains.
“I use [it] to pay for my children’s school transport and I am very happy that I am now able to pay for something,” she adds.
Uprooted from her family home in Homs by shelling in 2012, Manar
sought refuge in neighbouring Lebanon the following year. After her
husband was killed in a traffic accident, she is now head of the family.
“What we buy is no longer imposed on us.”
Once she has taken care of her children’s schooling, Manar can budget for the remainder of the month.
“I promised my children to buy them slippers with part of this
month’s cash assistance. So I am going to do that because I have the
money,” she adds.
The 29-year-old is among millions of refugees and others of concern
in scores of countries worldwide who have been able to take greater
control of their lives since UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, began
expanding cash-based assistance in 2016.
The programme aims to help refugees, asylum-seekers, returnees,
internally displaced and stateless people meet their needs in dignity,
are protected and can become more resilient. In the past two years it
helped 10.5 million people in need in 94 countries, and UNHCR now provides more cash than in-kind aid.
Most of the money is disbursed without restrictions, meaning that
refugees themselves can choose how they spend it. This benefits the
local economy as refugees buy essential goods in local stores and
pay for local services.
“Before we were restricted to spending the cash assistance in
supermarkets. But when they made it available in cash, they gave us the
freedom of choice. What we buy is no longer imposed on us,’’ says Manar.
While she prioritizes spending on her children’s schooling, other
people of concern from Greece to Niger and Somalia are using cash
assistance to pay their rent, buy medicines, pay off debts or even start
businesses. Flexible and innovatory, the initiative is even helping
displaced people living in some of the more remote places where UNHCR
works, such as camps in Niger.
A refugee signs the necessary documents to
receive her cash card in Athens, Greece, September 2017. Cash gives
refugees the dignity of choice and encourages self-reliance.
© UNHCR/Yorgos Kyvernitis
At the West African country’s Tabareybarey refugee camp, UNHCR
distributed 2,500 mobile phones to refugees. Using safe and secure
electronic payments – so-called “Mobile Money” – it is assisting 10,000
men, women and children who fled insecurity in Mali.
An SMS message notifies beneficiaries that they have received their
assistance. They can then withdraw the cash at the phone shop – a red
booth in the camp – or pay for goods directly with their phones in the
“We’ve seen that providing cash instead of goods is one of the best
ways to address refugees’ basic needs here in Niger,” says Robert Heyn,
UNHCR’s associate programme officer for cash-based interventions in the
“It’s more cost effective, it gives refugees dignity of choice and it
also has a very positive impact on the local economy. So it benefits
the refugees and the host economy at the same time.”
“It benefits the refugees and the host economy at the same time.”
Those in receipt of Mobile Money no longer need to carry cash in
their wallet with them, but can access their money “whenever they need
it, whenever it’s necessary, and they can also leave money on their
mobile money accounts,” says Heyn.
The flexibility and security is welcomed by refugees, among them
Zeinabu Warekoufaf from Mali. “When you have your money in your mobile
phone, nobody knows what you have and if somebody takes it from you, he
won’t know how much you have,” she says.
Visiting a shop at the settlement, Zeinabu uses cash to buy sugar,
tea and couscous, as well as skeins of brightly coloured wool from which
she make cushions to sell. Many of the shopkeepers have increased their
revenue since the refugees started getting money and are happy with the
UNHCR Niger: Mobile Money gives Malian refugees dignity and freedom of choice
UNHCR hopes that the freedom and security that Mobile Money provides
will allow refugees like Zeinabu to leave the camps and integrate into
the local community, where they can live in a more independent and
In 2016 and 2017, the first two years that it ramped up cash-based
assistance, UNHCR distributed a total of US$1.2 billion, in partnership
with governments, UN agencies, NGOs and the private sector.
The largest operations to date are in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Jordan,
Somalia, Ukraine, Sudan, Iraq, Egypt, Syria and Turkey, although
operations have since rolled out in other countries including
Bangladesh, where it is helping some 45,000 Rohingya refugees in informal settlements.
“The first thing I’ll do is pay off our debts of around 200 taka
(US$2.50), and then we’ll use this money to buy food”, said Samuda, a
lone mother with a 15-year-old daughter, at the launch of the
pilot project in southeast Bangladesh in April.
The cash-based interventions cover the whole arc of displacement,
from helping people uprooted within and beyond the borders of their own
countries, to assisting those who opt to return home when conditions are
safe enough – among them thousands of Somalis.
Nearly three decades of civil war in the Horn of Africa country
uprooted more than two million people to neighbouring countries. With
security at home improving, 80,000 refugees have so far returned
voluntarily, for whom cash is proving vital as they restart their lives
in their still fragile homeland.
Through its partner Amal Bank – which offers a range of financial
services from money transfers to microfinance in cities and remote areas
of Somalia – UNHCR is disbursing a bundle of grants to returnees
including a one-time cash allowance, monthly support, allowances for
each child and shelter grants. In an important step toward full
reintegration, returnees also have their own bank accounts making it
possible to receive and save money.
Among beneficiaries is mother of five Aisha, 55, who spent 25 years
as a refugee in Dadaab, Kenya. On returning to Somalia in early 2017,
she used a reinstallation grant of US$200 to set up a small store in
Kismayo, selling everything from bananas and watermelons to pens.
Returnees also have their own bank accounts making it possible to receive and save money.
“It allows me to cater to most of my family’s needs,” she says of the
shop, stocked with items bought from local wholesalers in the country,
now getting back on its feet after decades of war and instability.
Others are using their cash grants and assistance to buy land and
livestock, or start a business, like 47-year-old Mohamed Noor Omar, who
faced an uncertain future in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya after fleeing
civil war in his native Somalia in the early 1990s.
With the allure of grants totalling US$1,600, he returned to the
Somali capital, Mogadishu last year, where he used some of the money to
buy a fishing boat. He also partnered with a local man who had an engine
to run it.
Out on the water by 6 a.m., he makes US$7 to US$10 a day depending on
the catch, and is now looking to improve his business like any other
“That income is enough to meet my basic requirements,” says Mohamed,
who wants to buy better nets to catch more fish, and an outboard motor
that can take him further offshore. “That way I can improve my living
Reporting by Rima Cherri and Houssam Hariri in Lebanon, Caroline
Gluck in Bangladesh, Robert Heyn in Niger, and Njoki Mwangi and Urayayi
Mutsindikwa in Somalia.