Three ways cash is king for asylum seekers in Greece

Stefania Imperia Aid, Emergency, Refugees and IDPs

Stefania Imperia asks what cash assistance means in practical terms for asylum seekers in Greece. 

With tens of thousands of refugees and migrants stranded in Greece for an undefined period, providing cash grants to asylum seekers living in the Epirus region of north-west Greece may represent not only an efficient and dignified means to provide humanitarian assistance – but also an outlet to flexibility, empowerment and autonomy. I asked myself if this idea of an opportunity for a ‘normal life’ was equally felt by asylum seekers or was mainly a perception of humanitarians. What would cash assistance mean in practice for asylum seekers looking to rebuild their lives?

“cash helps us to have a normal life”. Hazem, 19 years old

Since December 2016 Oxfam has been distributing pre-paid cards to hundreds of asylum seekers by implementing a Cash program funded by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO).

Although the program has been running across 15 sites in Epirus, common aspects quickly emerged allowing me to establish at least three true facts:

1) Cash assistance can be a learning experience and an example of cooperation.

In the previous months most beneficiaries, supported by Oxfam or other humanitarian aid agencies, had already experienced the cash distribution process either in Epirus or in other areas of Greece. Instructions and guidance material by Oxfam staff on how to use the pre-paid cards on the ATMs were important, but the exchange of information and support between asylum seekers who had learned to navigate the system and the newly arrived ones was equally essential.

As some of the most critical aspects started to emerge, cooperation and solidarity among the beneficiaries proved to be vital: from being physically present on the days that Oxfam was carrying out registration, verification and distribution processes, to being able to read the pin of the pre-paid cards correctly. The community would often help to ensure that everyone was present in the site so they wouldn’t miss the distribution or support staff in the process by asking others to queue in line so distributions could be safe and orderly. Many of the beneficiaries trusted each other for advice or support in taking money out, making cash assistance a tangible example of mutual help and cooperation when responding to a humanitarian crisis.

2) Cash allows people to ‘help themselves’

On the receiving end, cash assistance proved to be one concrete way for people to become more resilient. Having access to a monthly income allows people to prioritise urgent needs and make dignified choices and decisions, while offering some reassurance about their capacity to face possible emergencies. This has positive repercussions on their physical and mental health, and it is not difficult to imagine why. Having access to money means that people can buy their own food and clothes for example, as opposed to receiving handouts which can create negative dependencies on aid, and it also helps people move around by enabling them to use public transport, buy calling cards to call their loved ones in other European countries or access doctors to address their medical needs, such as dental care or physiotherapy.

3) Cash assistance is a first step to ‘integration’

Receiving cash assistance also means being able to go out into the centre of towns and villages and into shops, meeting locals and interacting with them. This is the first step to the integration process, offering an opportunity for exchange and interaction between asylum seekers and local communities on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.

The injection of cash has a multiplier effect on the local economy

“I am looking to merge with the community and to be well-integrated … cash helps us to have a normal life”. Hazem, Syrian, 19 years old.

Asylum seekers often feel like their lives are on hold until they receive a decision on their asylum claims. This means waiting to know they will be safe, waiting to be able to support themselves and their families with a job, waiting to invest in friendships that will last. Cash assistance is one empowering way for them to live their lives now, today, giving people a chance to choose what they need, to use their own voice to ask for it and to be part of the society they live in. This all happens by simply changing the way people are being supported during an emergency, and although it is not a long term ‘solution’ to their state of limbo, it is much closer to an outlet to a more ‘normal life’ for thousands of people in need of protection today

Oxfam is there

Since December 2016 Oxfam provides Cash grants (pre-paid cards) to asylum seekers living in the Epirus region of north-west Greece, to help them cover some of their basic needs with greater flexibility, dignity and autonomy.

In general, provision of Cash transfers provides an opportunity for the beneficiaries to choose what they need and want, instead of pre-defined handouts of items or food defined by humanitarian organisations. Such rightful return of meal consumption control enables independence and increased self-respect. The availability of Cash gives households a sense of restored power over their immediate situation. In addition, there is evidence that receiving Cash may empower women within the household. Families or households are able to plan and prioritise, and in particular meet the needs of children.

In parallel, the injection of Cash through the distribution of financial assistance has a multiplier effect on the local economy in comparison to in-kind distributions. Through the provision of financial assistance, humanitarian organisations, like Oxfam, can support asylum seekers in Greece, while enabling a secondary outcome of improving the economic situation of the host community.

This blog was originally posted by Oxfam International.


Max Lawson

Max Lawson is Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam International