Cash transfers for Syrian refugees in Jordan: bridging the gap between short-term assistance and long-term social and economic integration

July 18, 2017
Martina Ulrichs, Jessica Hagen-Zanker and Rebecca Holmes
Children playing in Jordan, 2016. Photo: Jessica Hagen-Zanker

Conflicts in the Middle East, particularly Syria, have sparked some of the largest refugee flows in recent history. Contrary to portrayals in the Western media, half of refugees worldwide are concentrated in seven non-European countries: Palestine, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan, South Africa and Turkey. In some of these countries the proportion of refugees is disproportionately large: in the most extreme case, about 20% of the population in Lebanon are refugees or asylum-seekers (compared to 0.3% in the UK). More than 40% of refugees have been displaced for more than ten years (Cosgrave et al., 2016).

These statistics help us appreciate that what is perceived as a ‘short-term crisis’ is here to stay. Understanding not only the causes of refugee movements, but also the characteristics and trends of forced displacement, means that policies and funding mechanisms need to be put in place that plan for long-term livelihood support.

Jordan has for decades hosted an exceptionally large number of refugees compared to the size of its population. There are around 650,000 registered Syrian refugees alone (with many more unofficially in the country). Overall, Syrian refugees account for about one in ten inhabitants in Jordan, most of them living in urban areas (UNHCR 2016). Almost 90% are living in poverty, and 80% are forced into coping strategies that risk trapping them there for the long term, including child labour, incurring debt and engaging in high-risk jobs (UNHCR, 2015; Plank and Samuels, 2017).

Considering the high levels of vulnerability of Syrians in Jordan, ODI undertook a piece of research asking whether the provision of cash transfers delivered through UN agencies facilitates the long-term social and economic integration of refugees through access to basic services and employment. Cash transfers are recognised as an effective tool to deliver social assistance, but in a humanitarian context they tend to operate on a short-term basis to meet immediate needs, such as reducing food insecurity.

In one of the few exceptions, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has provided monthly transfers to vulnerable Syrian refugees in Jordan since 2012 (transfers per month range from $110–220). The programme currently covers 32,000 refugee families (approximately a quarter of the Syrian refugee population in Jordan) (Schimmel, 2015). The question for us was: does the provision of a regular transfer facilitate access to schools, health services and employment for Syrian refugees? In our qualitative research we interviewed Syrian refugees in four urban sites Two sites in Amman governorate (Al Hasmi Al Shamali, Abu Alanda) and two in Irbid governorate (Irbid City and Ramtha City).  in Jordan, some of whom received the transfer and some of whom did not. Based on our findings, three policy implications emerged for cash transfer programmes aimed at refugees in the context of long-term displacement:

  1. Regular, predictable cash transfers are critical for refugees to meet their most basic needs and reduce reliance on negative coping strategies

Findings from this research highlighted the importance of cash assistance for refugees in meeting their most basic needs, in particular accommodation. Out of the 30 beneficiaries – both men and women – who answered the question on how the transfer was used, 27 said it went straight towards rent (see Figure 1), with 16 specifically stating rent as the first priority. Given that rent is a cash-based expenditure, receiving a cash transfer is critical in a context where 85% of Syrian refugees in Jordan are considered to have too little income to meet their basic needs (CARE, 2015).

These findings need to be understood within the context of the different types of support refugees receive in Jordan. The majority of study respondents receive a number of transfers, including food vouchers from the World Food Programme (WFP), the UNHCR cash transfer as well as a UNICEF child grant for families. Since many households receive multiple transfers, and the cash transfer is cash-based and hence fungible, households are able to prioritise what they spend it on (see also emerging findings from a UNICEF/UNHCR cash transfer baseline study (Samuels et al., 2017)). Some donors and policy-makers have questioned the appropriateness and efficiency of having separate agencies provide cash transfers and vouchers for different needs, as opposed to a single cash transfer providing for basic needs, children and food (Barder, 2017).

Providing refugee households with regular income support to cover their rent is particularly important in the context of urban displacement. Three-quarters of all displaced people globally live in urban settings, not in camps (Cosgrave et al., 2016), and in Jordan the proportion of urban refugees is estimated to be around 80% (UNHCR, 2016). Considering the high cost of living in urban areas and the limited scope refugees have to generate income due to restrictive work policies and lack of social assistance, many are forced to engage in negative coping strategies that will have long-term negative consequences for their families, such as sending their children to work or selling assets (NRC, 2016b; CARE, 2013). At least 40% of Syrian boys aged 12 to 15 years and 60% of Syrian boys aged 16 are in work (UNHCR, 2014). Cash transfers in general have proved effective in reducing child labour (Bastagli et al., 2016). Despite not being an impact assessment, the qualitative data in this study suggests how participation in the cash transfer may reduce a household’s reliance on child labour and allow boys to continue attending school.

‘The [UNHCR cash transfer] helps directly in having children at school, without it I wouldn’t be able to send them, they’d be working to secure shelter.’ – Male beneficiary, Ramtha

The ability to cover their rent can have a positive impact on refugees who have not only been displaced from their homes due to conflict, but who also often face housing insecurity and further displacement in host communities like Jordan with highly competitive housing markets. Studies have shown that 10% of Syrians are under immediate threat of eviction because they cannot pay the rent, and several moves in one year are common among refugee households (NRC, 2015). This increases anxiety, domestic violence and family tensions among already traumatised people. According to respondents, receiving regular and predictable cash assistance reduces this stress and can improve psychosocial wellbeing.

The cash support allows refugees to pay for food and shelter and can also prevent them from taking certain actions that can lock them into poverty in the long term.

  1. How effective cash transfers are in helping refugees to access services and employment depends on enabling national policies

Access to basic services and employment is critical for the wellbeing of refugees in the short and long term, as well as for their social and economic integration. Cash transfers can reduce barriers to these services if these barriers are primarily related to financial constraints (e.g. fees to attend health services, school fees, transport costs, fees for work permits).

In Jordan, we found that, while cash helps refugees cover some of the financial costs related to education and health care, national policies are more important in either enabling or constraining effective access to services and employment. The financial cost of accessing health services and schools for Syrian refugees in Jordan is relatively low due to government subsidies. With financial support from the international community, the Jordanian government extends the right to free schooling to refugees, and Syrian refugees have access to subsidised health care at the same rate as uninsured Jordanians, as long as they register with the Ministry of the Interior. While basic treatment is free, costs are incurred linked to transport, medication and specialised treatment. Cash transfers help with costs attached to health and education, but do not in themselves determine whether refugees can access these services. We also found no differences between men and women’s preferences for spending on education and health care.

Whereas national health and education policies are enabling access for refugees, labour market conditions and refugee-specific policies currently restrict their employment possibilities. Prior to 2016, Syrians did not have the right to work in Jordan, although like other foreign nationals they could apply for a work permit in specific sectors subject to nationality quotas (Bellamy et al., 2016). The Jordan Compact agreed between the government and the international community in February 2016 has opened up a route to legal employment, with a pledge on jobs for Syrians in Special Economic Zones, and the right to work permits tied to employers in specific sectors (including services and agriculture).

Despite allowing Syrians to apply for work permits and temporarily waiving their fees, uptake has been lower than expected. Of the study respondents, only a handful indicated that they or one of their relatives had a work permit, whereas many said that they were working informally. A recent study showed that 99% of Syrians work informally in highly vulnerable conditions with little protection from exploitation by their employers, and low and erratic salaries (ILO, 2015).

The reasons for the low uptake of work permits include misperceptions among refugees about the cost of work permits, as well as restrictions that tie the permits to specific sectors which might not match refugees’ skills. Additionally, policies incentivising refugees to work need to consider the wider labour market and the socio-cultural context. Even before the arrival of Syrian refugees, Jordan’s labour market was under pressure with high levels of unemployment and informal employment, as well as dependency on low-wage and foreign labour (ILO, 2015; Stave and Hillesund, 2015). In a country with a large informal sector, there is little incentive for employers to hire Syrians with a work permit, since formalisation increases the cost for the employer, who will have to start making social security contributions. Women refugees face additional socio-cultural barriers to taking up work, for example because of childcare responsibilities or the acceptability of women’s employment outside the home.

Given the fact that Syrian refugees are working informal jobs with low levels of financial and social security, the provision of a regular, predictable cash transfer provides a lifeline people will not want to jeopardise. The cash transfer thus becomes an essential income stream that allows refugees to meet their most immediate needs, but to ensure they can generate income for themselves and be economically independent, complementary labour market policies are critical.

  1. Short-term and unpredictable funding cycles can undermine the effects of cash transfers on reducing the vulnerability of refugees in protracted crises

The short-term nature of funding cycles for refugee support programmes is at odds with the reality of long-term displacement. In the case of cash transfers that aim for developmental impact, rather than emergency response, one of the key determinants of their potential impact is the regularity and predictability of provision over extended periods of time (Bastagli, 2016). This requires securing longer-term funding streams for cash transfer programmes.

The UNHCR cash transfer programme, like the UNICEF transfer, runs on short-term and unpredictable humanitarian funding cycles. This poses a persistent challenge to the longer-term delivery of the programme, as well as to the regularity and reliability beneficiaries need to plan for the future. According to a key informant in this study, funding is currently insufficient to meet the needs of the target population, with 11,000 households on the waiting list for the UNHCR transfer in September 2016, and the possibility that funding will be withdrawn an ongoing threat for agencies. This is not a new problem for humanitarian aid, and over the last decade there have been initiatives to provide for more predictable funding, including the enhanced Central Emergency Response Fund (HPG, 2016). New, longer-term development financing mechanisms are beginning to emerge, such as the Syria Regional Refugee and Resilience Response Plan (Development Initiatives, 2016).

This also opens up a wider question around providing social protection to refugees through humanitarian systems that operate in parallel with national social protection mechanisms. While basic services such as health and education are provided to the whole population in Jordan – host and refugee populations alike – refugees are excluded from national social protection programmes. This means that refugees receiving cash transfers are in effect accessing a parallel system. Similar to the benefits to be had from merging different humanitarian cash transfer programmes (Barder, 2017), merging the two systems could potentially lead to cost savings, as well as potential positive effects for social cohesion between refugee and host communities.   Finally, when thinking through merging these systems, it  is important to consider, not just political feasibility, but also financing options, which could include multi-donor trust funds, with a greater focus on longer-term developmental impacts (World Bank, 2016).

Policy-makers and practitioners need to look into lessons from emerging approaches such as Turkey’s Emergency Social Safety Net for refugees, where the design of the humanitarian cash transfer is modelled closely on the social assistance provided by the Turkish Ministry of Family and Social Policy, and therefore has the potential to be combined into a single system in the future. The EU-funded Emergency Social Safety Net Programme shows a middle ground between ‘national and nationally funded’ and ‘external and externally funded’.


The study we report on here highlights how moving from short-term humanitarian assistance to the longer-term provision of cash transfers can be a first step to providing social protection for refugees, which allows them to meet their basic needs and protects them from negative coping strategies to manage economic risks. To harness its full potential, benefit highly vulnerable refugees and contribute to social and economic integration in host communities, cash transfers for refugees need to be supported by longer-term funding streams, embedded within national systems and complemented by sectoral policies that further stimulate access to basic services and employment.

Jessica Hagen-Zanker is a Research Fellow at ODI, where she leads the migration research. Martina Ulrichs is an independent consultant, working on social protection and social vulnerability to climate change. Rebecca Holmes is a Research Fellow at ODI, specialising in gender and social protection.


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