COVID-19 pandemic is a global health crisis with implications for people on the move worldwide. Although refugees and displaced populations are exposed to similar threats from COVID-19 as host populations, their degree of vulnerability may be a lot higher due to the conditions of their migratory journeys, including losing their primary source of income and their ability to pay rent, buy food and other essentials such as medicine. The COVID-19 emergency has worsened pre-existing vulnerabilities for this population experiencing difficulties in accessing social protection systems.

The webinar's main objective was to showcase innovative field practices to promote inclusion and expand coverage in social assistance and protection programs for refugees and displaced populations. Depending on the country context, these include adjustments to existing cash-based interventions, use of complementary shock-responsive social safety net programs, and scaling up social protection response to COVID-19 to host communities.

The discussion was moderated by Nancy Landa, Technical Advisor of the GIZ pilot project in Mexico, Skills for Reintegration, who was joined by the speakers Hanna Mattinen, from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) based in Geneva; Tania Niño, from the Colombian Office of the World Food Programme; and Camilo Buitrago Hernández, representative of Gerencia para la Respuesta a la Migración desde Venezuela.

You can watch the recording here and see the presentation here.


UNHCR Cash Assistance in light of COVID-19 – Complementing Government Response

Cash response globally to COVID-19 is essentially acting as a social safety nets for the most vulnerable during this difficult time. For this reason, UNHCR and its partners, in close collaboration with governments, have put in place cash responses during the pandemic. UNHCR has distributed $100 million USD, between February and May 2020, as unrestricted cash assistance to help people meet their basic needs but also to ensure quarantine and social distancing measures.

Despite the current restrictions and lockdowns, UNHCR has managed to deliver cash assistance and expanded coverage (‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ expansion) through a range of approaches including, increased transfer values, created new programs and give front-loading payments while increasing delivery through digital means. One-third of cash assistance has been delivered through digital formats. Other approaches that UNHCR has employed to complement government response include:

  • Setting up new cash projects
  • Establishing hygiene measures at cash distributions
  • Increased use of digital payments and monitoring
  • COVID-19 hotlines for information + assessment
  • Testing of new technology such as contactless biometrics
  • Move from cash to in-kind when markets are weak


Access to social protection is a key challenge that refugees and forcibly displaced persons usually encounter as their right to governmental social protection is not guaranteed. This differential status becomes a barrier in accessing public services such as education and health as well as legal income opportunities. Often times, refugees and forcibly displaced persons are not included in the national social registries, which are the pre-condition to access social assistance programs. Refugee ID issued by governments has some acceptance but have limitations compared to a national ID. As a result, they lack access to financial services because their IDs are not considered robust enough for customer requirements.

An additional challenge in the inclusion of refugees and forcibly displaced persons is the management of forced displacement. In many countries, refugee matter falls under the Ministries of Foreign Affairs. UNHCR’s traditional national counterpart falls under this line ministry. However, to attend to refugees' multidimensional needs, there is a mixture of governmental institutions such as the Social Ministries, responsible for social protection; the Civil registration and identification, in charge of issuing the National ID, whereas the refugee authority issues the refugee ID; Central Banks, which governs access to financial services; and national telecommunication authorities regulating rules of mobile connectivity. Therefore, there are several different players and line ministries that need to be aligned and coordinated in addressing refugee issues.

The following three country examples were presented to illustrate the field practices that have emerged to respond to the aforementioned challenges faced by refugees and forcibly displaced persons.


Horizontal expansion in Pakistan

There are approximately 1.4 million Afghan refugees registered with the Government of Pakistan. As they register, they are approved for registration of the official ID (POR card). The refugees are engaged in casual labour within the informal sector and they mostly work as unskilled daily-waged laborers, being severely affected by the lockdown measures that started in March 2020.

The Government of Pakistan has launched safeguarding initiatives for COVID-19 including former Ehsaas emergency cash programme. The programme covers around 12 million Pakistani families. This Ehsaas emergency cash initiative is linked with the broader Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) of the Pakistani Government. Because refugees do not have access to the government's social protection response, the government reached out to UNHCR and requested to complement their strategy by horizontally expanding cash assistance to cover refugees during these difficult times.

To expand coverage, UNHCR used a database of 1.4 million registered refugees and proceeded on its selection through additional community outreach and profiling to find those who were most in need. UNHCR started issuing payments in May 2020. The program mirrors the Ehsaas cash transfer amount (12 thousand rupees) and duration (4 months).  The first phase of this programme targets 37 thousand households which is up 220,000 individuals. The budget for the first phase is $3 million USD. The response has been extremely rapid. UNHCR worked very well with the government and with the Pakistani post office.


Remote registration, horizontal expansion and impact assessments in Morocco

Morocco has 7,990 refugees and 3,820 asylum seekers. Many of the refugees rely on daily work and due to lockdown restrictions, they have lost their income source. Furthermore, they lack access to the support available to nationals. Under COVID-19, the issuing of asylum certificates and refugee status approval is done remotely and online to ensure refugees continued to access their state permits and their IDs.

The COVID-19 response from government targeted around 4.5 million Moroccan households, but it was not accessible to refugees. This was the first time that Morocco had put in place such a large-scale unconditional cash transfers programme. Ramed, the government-subsidized health insurance regime for the poor, is based on socioeconomic status and this specific database excludes refugees.  Therefore, UNHCR went through the targeting system based on the refugee database. The cash assistance that UNHCR put in place fully mirrors the government’s COVID social assistance in brand, size, duration, and delivery mechanisms. UNHCR used Al Barid Bank for over-the-counter payment, as the refugee ID is considered as adequate proof of ID for this type of delivery.

The Government of Morocco is planning to start a new cash transfer project for the most vulnerable Moroccan households. UNHCR has been involved in many advocacy efforts with its government partners to include refugees in it.  In a way, COVID-19 and this cash transfer initiative created this opportunity for closer collaboration and alignment between refugees and nationals.


Financial inclusion, digitalization & expansion in Rwanda

There are more than 150,000 refugees in Rwanda, and most of them live in six refugee camps across the country. 11,500 refugees live in two urban centres. In urban areas, refugees rely on unskilled daily labour. There is de facto right to work in Rwanda.

The right to social protection is written in the 2015 constitution and relatively new compared to other countries. There are no real social protection or governmental social safety net to align or to include refugees in camps. In normal times, WFP and UNHCR were the bigger providers of cash transfers in the refugee camps.

Under the pandemic, UNHCR used the already existing system to ensure that the increased needs were covered, by using front-loading payment. Instead of monthly payments, UNHCR issued one big payment that covered three months and increased the transfer value (vertical expansion) to cover the additional needs due to COVID-19. The cash assistance is delivered through Equity Bank. The government and the Central Bank allowed refugees to access real personal bank accounts with the refugee ID. People already have bank accounts and debit cards in place which is an important first step towards financial inclusion.

The Central Bank issued a circular where they encourage the use of digital means and payments allowing refugees to have access to mobile money. UNHCR worked closely with the service provider to integrate phone numbers into their database. Additionally, UNHCR also worked with the government to ensure that there was liquidity available in the camps, as the government had placed restrictions on the numbers of daily transactions that were temporarily lifted so the money could be channelled in a timely manner in the camps.


For more additional information on UNHCR’s field practices emerging in light of COVID-19: 

UNHCR Cash Assistance and COVID 19: Emerging Field Practices I

UNHCR Cash Assistance and COVID 19: Emerging Field Practices II


Shock Responsive Social Protection in Colombia

The COVID-19 situation has added a layer of complexity for Colombia which was has been heavily impacted by migration flows from Venezuela, reaching unprecedented proportions. More than 5.3 million people have left Venezuela in the past three years, doubling the Syrian exodus in terms of magnitude and intensity despite not having an armed conflict. The majority of Venezuelans are arriving in Colombia, increasing the country’s population by 4.5% and with minimal prospects of returning to Venezuela.

Colombia is receiving mixed migration flows, destination, return, circular and transit migration. There are 1.8 million Venezuelan nationals intending to remain and 1.5 million in transit to other countries. Colombia has issued temporary permits to over 780,000 migrants in two years and has worked on enhancing capacities of its migration authority, Migración Colombia. They have also granted full nationality to 43,000 newborns to Venezuelan parents in Colombia who have been denied recognition as citizens from Venezuela and facing risk of statelessness. New regularization mechanisms were put in place to grant permits to irregular migrants who secured job offers.

Colombia anticipates that this migration exodus is unlikely to change in the mid to long-term, and its government has been working on responding through the humanitarian-development nexus through the integration of migrants into the existing social protection system. Prior to COVID-19, Colombia had been working towards a long-term approach for a policy agenda which includes the provision of basic services, protection, economic integration, and social cohesion.

New challenges emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Colombian government has been working to adapt its responses in the following areas:

  • Border management: Due to border closure since March 14, the government enabled a humanitarian corridor to provide attention to persons with specific needs, including coordinated operations for returning migrants.
  • Healthcare access: COVID-19 related services are provided to migrants regardless of their migratory status.
  • Legal status: Migration authority suspended expiration dates of temporary permits for Venezuelan migrants while the lockdown measures are in place.
  • Rapid assistance: Provide in-kind food assistance to 200,000 migrants in a situation of vulnerability irrespective of their migratory status as part of a massive operation to provide such assistance to 1.7 million households.

Colombia has also been working on adjusting the response of the international community in the country with close coordination with UN agencies and local civil society organisations, shuffling priorities in various components of humanitarian action so that all migrants have access to aid packages that help them cope with economic restrictions of lockdown measures.

One of Colombia’s key programs is Ingreso Solidario, an unconditional cash transfer program to alleviate the economic effects of the pandemic directed at extremely poor and poor households that are not included in other cash transfer programs or are not considered highly vulnerable (over 3 million eligible households). Since its start on March 25th, more than 1.7 million people have received payments, including 17,320 migrants from Venezuela.


Ongoing joint intervention by Colombian Government and WFP

Colombia has a strong social protection system to fight poverty, with large conditional cash programs. WFP is working to complement Colombia’s Government response and to strengthen the responsiveness of the social protection system.

Programs like Familias en Acción do not cover all poor families or migrants. SISBEN is a survey to assess the level of income of the most vulnerable and it serves as a targeting mechanism. Registration in SISBEN is required to access social programs.

WFP’s intervention is in the bordering district of Arauca due to its complex security situation and challenging socio-economic indicators. WFP uses a ‘piggybacking’ response with the use of the official registry to access records of poor households, including regular migrants with special permits to proceed with payments, while updating migrant information in the database. Registries are important in social protection as a solid social registry and an updated information system enables to reach out to people in times of shocks.

WFP approaches that complement the government’s response include in-kind support: WFP provided financial support so that the government could deliver food kits to hard to reach people, the elderly (+70), people with disabilities and irregular migrants. This intervention also has gender considerations as a cross-cutting approach, and it includes an evaluation component to strengthen the responses of the social protection system.


The webinar concluded with an engaging Q&A session, accessible here. You can also join the Q&A discussion here


This blog post is part of the Social protection responses to COVID-19 webinar series. The series is a joint effort initiated by the IPC-IGGIZ on behalf of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ), and the Australia Government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) collaboration with the platform, and in cooperation with partners from different organisations.

Join our online community ''Social protection responses to COVID-10 [Task force]" to learn more about the initiative and future webinars

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
    • Social transfers
      • Cash transfers
        • Unconditional cash transfers
Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Programme implementation
    • Benefits payment / delivery
  • Programme design
Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Social protection systems
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Disaster risk management / reduction
  • Health
  • Morocco
  • Rwanda
  • Colombia
  • Pakistan
  • Latin America & Caribbean
  • Middle East & North Africa
  • South Asia
  • Sub-Saharan Africa
The views presented here are the author's and not's