Millions of Syrians who sought refuge in neighbouring countries in the 10 years since the war began in their homeland are confronting overlapping crises – from the COVID-19 pandemic and mass unemployment to hyperinflation and high debt in their host countries.
Almost 5.6 million Syrian refugees are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and more than 5.3 million of them have been integrated into urban and rural communities in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.
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As Syrians have integrated themselves into their host communities, cash assistance programmes have empowered them to prioritise their own needs and decide what to spend their aid funds on — including food, rent, utilities, medicine and education.
While these cash assistance programmes have been around for years, the magnitude of the Syrian conflict has changed the way aid agencies administer them, including how they track and measure refugees’ needs and deliver specialised help to the most vulnerable, including women-led households, those who are ailing, elderly and disabled people and unaccompanied minors.
From mass UN databases that help classify and target vulnerable groups with specialised aid to biometric and other banking system updates that have allowed Syrian refugees to access funds by simply scanning the irises in their eyes, such innovations have streamlined aid work. And that’s crucial in a situation that has become the worst refugee crisis in history.
“We cannot be wasteful,” Alex Tyler, senior liaison adviser at the Regional Bureau for the Middle East and North Africa for UNHCR, told Al Jazeera. “I think that all of the targeting and the biometrics and the banking systems are helping us to be as efficient as possible.”
Efficiency is more critical than ever as the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated economic challenges for host governments and made the situation for Syrian families more difficult. Weak institutions, poor governance and overstretched safety nets risk eroding years of progress, aid workers say.
Syrian refugees say they are struggling to afford the basic necessities, pay rent, and access education, according to a December report from the UN and World Bank (PDF) that measured the pandemic’s effects.
Reports of domestic violence against women and girls have increased, the report found, and most Syrian households say they are going into further debt just to afford food.
The benefits of cash assistance
Providing refugees with the direct assistance they need to afford their essentials is crucial. Host to 3.6 million Syrian refugees, Turkey is also home to the world’s largest cash assistance programmes.
The Emergency Social Safety Net (ESSN) programme, funded by the European Union, provides monthly cash assistance via debit cards to 1.8 million refugees, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
Salah Hamwi, assistant country director for Turkey programmes at CARE, an international humanitarian organisation, works to provide aid to Syrian refugees in the Turkish city of Gaziantep about 120km from Aleppo, Syria.
“Cash vouchers have a longer-lasting positive impact than any other kind of aid because it takes into consideration the needs for each specific person, community and emergency,” Hamwi told Al Jazeera.
Ninety-seven percent of Syrian families receiving cash assistance through the ESSN programme were able to maintain better nutrition, according to the UN’s World Food Programme.
The number of families who said they were able to cover their basic needs such as rent, utilities and food doubled after they received cash assistance, and the number of families who had to send their children to work to support them financially fell by almost half – allowing more children the opportunity to go to school.
We're operating in a country where the government is super weak.
UNHCR’s database of Syrian refugees, compiled in partnership with host governments in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq, helps record and track the specific needs of vulnerable populations including female-led households.
Syrian women living in host communities struggle to access education, shelter, healthcare, mobile technology and the labour market, aid organisations report.
“Women-headed households right now are really struggling to generate any income,” Charbel Zeidan, director of programmes at Caritas Lebanon, a non-governmental organisation, told Al Jazeera.
Caritas Lebanon is working to provide Syrian women with basic financial literacy training, Zeidan said. Women refugees, some of whom lost their husbands in the war and have children to support, are often targets for scams and fraud or overcharged when purchasing basic supplies, he added. If they are able to find work, they are often offered extremely low wages.
“We must consider that a mom cannot just leave her children at home to go to work. So without having child-friendly spaces, without any other options, it’s becoming really challenging for women,” Zeidan said.
Banking innovations such as the Cairo Amman Bank’s iris-scanning system have helped cut out middlemen. A Syrian woman receiving cash assistance can go into the bank without a bank card or ID, scan her iris and immediately access her account.
“Now we’re able to transfer funds to people in the most efficient way possible and effectively fraud-proof because of the biometrics,” Tyler said. “We’re finally getting to a stage where we’re treating people with dignity and living up to the kind of ideals we’re supposed to be representing.”
Safety nets stretched to the max
But living up to ideals when it comes to supporting refugees has also unfortunately been met with high levels of debt in Jordan, hyperinflation in Lebanon and a sharp drop in oil revenue in Iraq.
COVID-19-related lockdowns have also caused a sharp decline in economic activity, particularly in informal sectors where many refugees generate income.
For Jordan and Iraq, the losses are around 8.2 and 10.5 percent of 2019’s gross domestic product (GDP) respectively, the UNHCR and World Bank’s December report found.
In Lebanon, which is experiencing a slew of economic and political challenges, the loss amounts to about 25 percent of 2019 GDP.
Cash vouchers have a longer-lasting positive impact than any other kind of aid because it takes into consideration the needs for each specific person.
About 88 percent of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon – 30 percent of the country’s population – said they could not afford basic supplies in 2020 compared to 55 percent at the end of 2019.
In response to hyperinflation, UNHCR recently boosted its monthly cash lifelines to Syrians in Lebanon from 260,000 Lebanese pounds ($171) to 400,000 Lebanese pounds ($262) per family per month.
“We’re operating in a country where the government is super weak,” Zeidan of Caritas Lebanon explained. “It’s up to us as humanitarian agencies to improve this, but at the end of the day, we’re not the government. We cannot play that role.”
Aid agencies say more funding is urgently needed not only to keep aid flowing to refugees in host communities, but to rebuild Syria so that those who escaped the war can one day have the option to return.
But a political gridlock among global superpowers is stalling those efforts.
“The problem is that to actively improve inside Syria will require reconstruction money,” said Tyler. “And that, at the moment, is basically a no-go because it’s very much tied to the political standoff.”