Venezuelan manicurists Silany and Francis arrived in Brazil a month ago, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and were unable to get a job because of mandatory social-distancing measures. Thanks to a UNHCR cash transfer program, they will be able to sustain themselves and pay their basic living expenses.

Upon their arrival, Silany and Francis were ready to work and full of hope. To their dismay, they arrived at the same moment as the coronavirus pandemic. Almost overnight, it took the jobs they hoped to fill, along with positions throughout the country paralyzing commerce and stranding Brazilians and migrants alike without work.

At first, the extent of the crisis was not clear and so, with the resilience that is characteristic of many refugees, the pair worked hard to find jobs. With their savings running out, Silany and her family moved in with her mother, who already faced the threat of eviction after her work cleaning houses disappeared. Francis and her family did the opposite, moving from a friend’s home to a small rented room.

To help Silany, Francis and 700 other families – four out of five of them headed by women - UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is providing emergency cash-based intervention (CBI) for many of those who register with the agency as refugees. Funds are loaded onto "UNHCR Support" cards, empowering refugees to pay for housing, food, health needs, and other urgent and priority expenses.

"This will give us much more peace of mind. We will be able to guarantee the payment of the rent and electricity, as well as diapers and food," said Silany's mother, who accompanied her daughter when she received the CBI program card at the Institute for Migration and Human Rights (IMHR), a UNHCR partner working to implement the program.

In the first quarter, UNHCR disbursed more than one million reais in CBI transfers (about $190,000 or €170,000) to help more than 2,000 refugees. Most are Venezuelans; others are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Cuba, Syria and Morocco.

In São Paulo, another young Venezuelan woman, Vanessa, is grateful for the help. Although, she came to Brazil a year ago, the economic turnaround has made getting a job difficult.

"I've been sleeping and waking up with the concern of how is tomorrow going to be," she said. “I was counting on my neighbor's help” to provide for herself and four children, she said. “This UNHCR card will help our lives a lot.”


A staff member from Cáritas Arquidiocesana de São Paulo issues a benefit card to Vanessa, a mother of four. They are seated in an office. The card can be used to help purchase food, healthcare or other urgent needs.
A staff member from Cáritas Arquidiocesana de São Paulo issues a benefit card to Vanessa, a mother of four. The card can be used to help purchase food, healthcare or other urgent needs. United Nations photo: Miguel Pachioni/UNHCR

Eligibility for cash-based intervention

The program’s beneficiaries are selected carefully: they must have their Brazilian documents in order and must demonstrate they cannot meet their basic needs. Priority is given to unaccompanied migrant children, people with medical conditions, elderly people, single parents, and survivors of violence. The grants cover three months of basic expenses, and recipients can apply to extend if they demonstrate they remain vulnerable.

The initiative aims to support Brazil’s Operation Welcoming strategy, which transfers willing Venezuelan refugees and migrants living in Roraima and Amazonas to regions where prospects for economic and social integration are better. The cash benefit is a bonus to help them stabilize their financial situation. It aims to create conditions needed to leave UNHCR shelters and become self-sufficient in their host city.

Before the pandemic, many asylum-seekers and refugees were able to access Brazil’s public-health system, which is now overwhelmed by the outbreak of COVID-19.

"The financial support to refugee people allows them to meet their needs in a dignified way and to contribute to the local economy in an assertive way,” said Cecilia Alvarado, of the UNHCR program in Brazil.

The initiative “provides protection, assistance and services to those who are in a greater vulnerable situation, according to their real needs."

The amount of support each recipient gets varies “according to the profile and needs of family groups,” explained Paula Coury of IMHR. The need for help paying rent and buying food is growing, according to Cleyton Abreu of Caritas São Paulo.

These and other UNHCR partner organizations are adapting to the pandemic’s constraints. Evaluations of vulnerability are now made by phone or video conference. Documents once physically presented to recipients can now be sent electronically. To guard against abuse, UNHCR checks information through ProGress, an electronic register system used throughout the country.

Donors support

Donors supporting the initiative include Luxembourg and the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund. Funds also help UNHCR distribute personal hygiene kits and other essential items and sustain activities to prevent and combat gender-based violence implemented in partnership with UN Women and the UN Population Fund.

UNHCR's goal is to reach 15,000 people. It has raised $1.2 million of the $2 million required.

To make a donation, click here.