The change in cash assistance for Syrian refugees was made to match similar assistance programmes that provide cash aid to support Palestinian refugees and economically vulnerable Lebanese citizens in dollars rather than the rapidly devaluing Lebanese pound.
“As of the end of May, refugees will be able to redeem their cash assistance in both currencies,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abu Khaled. “Therefore, the option of retrieving cash assistance in Lebanese pounds will still be available.”
The change to dual currency withdrawal will allow Syrian refugees in the economically deteriorating country to bypass the rapid depreciation of Lebanon’s unstable currency, which has lost over 98 per cent of its value since 2019.
Eligible Syrian refugee families will now be able to receive a maximum of $125 per month in cash assistance from UNHCR and the World Food Programme, although most families receive only partial assistance.
“Cash assistance provided to vulnerable persons in Lebanon, both Lebanese and refugees, should reflect the increasingly deteriorating situation with a view to ensure that minimum survival standards are fulfilled,” Ms Abu Khaled said.
She said the UNHCR faced operational challenges in obtaining large quantities of Lebanese bank notes. One dollar is worth about 94,000 Lebanese pounds and Lebanon’s largest denomination is a 100,000 pound banknote. Before the country's economic crisis began in 2019, the Lebanese pound was pegged at 1,507 to the dollar.
“The United Nations consulted with relevant counterparts on a sustainable solution to ensure that assistance provided to refugees remains effective and the delivery manageable. During these consultations, it became clear that the most appropriate solution under the current circumstances will be to enable refugees to redeem their cash assistance either in USD or Lebanese pounds,” Ms Abu Khaled said.
Syrian refugees who qualified for the needs-based assistance previously received 2,500,000 Lebanese pounds, or about $25, from UNHCR, while the WFP provided eligible families with 1,100,000 Lebanese pounds (around $11) per person for up to five people.
This meant that the maximum that a family of five could receive in assistance was about $80. When handed out in the local currency, the aid was susceptible to significant devaluation.
This change would mark the first time that Syrian refugees receive cash assistance in dollars since Lebanon’s economic crisis began in 2019, contrary to popular belief.
Lebanon has hosted Syrian refugees, currently estimated at around a million to 1.5 million, since war broke out in neighbouring Syria in 2011. The small Mediterranean country hosts the largest number of refugees in the world, per capita.
Its infrastructure and services, already failing, have been further strained by the population increase.
Syrian refugees have been met with greater hostility since the onset of the economic crisis because of the perception that Lebanese nationals must compete with Syrians for resources and that refugees are provided large amounts of cash assistance from humanitarian organisations.
This perception has largely been driven by political scapegoating as Lebanon’s political class seeks to deflect from the country’s financial crash.
With the Syrian government now back in control of most of Syria, calls have intensified in crisis-hit Lebanon for refugees to return home. But international rights groups have documented cases of torture and extreme abuse among refugees that have returned, insisting that Syria is not safe for return.