Reem and her sons were expelled from their home after she stopped paying the regular rent of 1,500 Egyptian pounds ($100), besides her commitment to pay 500 Egyptian pounds ($33) for bills.
Reem used to receive a monthly aid provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) worth 1,000 pounds (66 dollars). She also depended on the aid provided by "good people" to complete the rent and bills, while the monthly food basket provided by the UNHCR helped her secure her foodstuffs need. However, the aid was cut off for Reem and her family, her situation became so bad, and she does not know how to secure the food and medicine for her family.
"I am a sick widow (51 years old). My two children, aged 10 and 12, are also sick, and I do not have money for my treatment or their treatment. Nevertheless, UNHCR has cut financial aid for us, and I do not know how to act now!" Reem narrates her problem with the UNHCR in Egypt that cut her aid based on an assessment by Caritas organisation of her situation last December.
Reem is one of about 550,000 Syrian refugees/asylum seekers living in Egypt since 2011, who suffer from hard financial and health conditions that were exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, and worsened after the UNHCR cut off aid.
Unlike Reem, the author of the report documented the 11 cases of Syrian refugee women, all of whom are without a breadwinner and suffer from the absence or cut of the aid that the UNHCR was providing to them. They were unable to contact UNHCR over the past months.
UNHCR in Egypt contracts with implementing partners to provide services to refugee communities on its behalf, and UNHCR mandated to Caritas organisation to assess the situation of refugees who will receive financial or medical support from UNHCR.
UNHCR has cut off its aid to many refugees despite it knows the bad conditions they are experiencing in Egypt.
The termination of field visits to refugee homes to assess their conditions by Caritas aggravated the situation since they limited the assessments to an interview by phone. After the availability of Covid-19 vaccines and the beginning of the decline of the pandemic in Egypt, assessments started to be conducted through personal interviews in the Caritas office, and both methods are ineffective and do not reflect a realistic assessment of the refugee conditions and their economic conditions, according to statements by several Syrian refugees and community leaders with the author of the report.
Through its website, UNHCR states that it provides multi-purpose assistance, such as cash assistance for basic needs, either once every two months or once during the winter months ("winter grant") for the most vulnerable registered refugees and asylum seekers. It also provides other cash grants such as livelihoods and education grants that are paid once according to the criteria UNHCR and its partners apply.
Aid For the Rich, Not the Poor
Latifa Doughman, director of the "Bokra Ahla Foundation for Development" (civil society) and director of the Syrian Women Association of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, says that there is a misdistribution of aid allocated for Syrian refugees, as some families who are not poor receive aid and food baskets, while many poor and needy families are deprived of them.
Since the cut of the aid provided to her by UNHCR until December 2020, Reem has been living in very poor financial conditions. After she was depending on the food basket provided by UNHCR, she is now looking for any person, mosque or association that provides financial or in-kind assistance. She has no option to obtain food other than this hard path for her and her children.
Essam Hamed, a lawyer interested in Syrian refugee affairs, confirms that he knows many Syrian refugees and asylum seekers who have been living in Egypt for years and do not receive any assistance from the UNHCR, although their financial condition is very poor, noting that he met with refugees whose financial condition is affluent and they receive all types of support from the UNHCR, while support is not provided for other needy cases.
Day by day, Reem's health condition is deteriorating without any response from UNHCR or Caritas. Where she has to make medical examinations every six months to monitor her health condition because she extracted a breast tumour ten years ago, but the costs of x-rays and medical examinations are high.
This is not her only problem, as she also suffers from a blocked nasal septum and she has to urgently make surgery the cost of which ranges between 15 and 20 thousand pounds (1000 - 1300 dollars). Moreover, she had rheumatism years ago, and the treatment that she was receiving became rare after the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic while the alternative is more expensive at 250 Egyptian pounds ($16).
However, Reem is unable to meet her health obligations due to her deteriorating financial situation. She is a widow without a breadwinner, and the surgery costs about 8,000 pounds ($520) after the reduction.
The health condition of Marwa (52 years) is similar to that of Reem. She extracted a benign breast tumour years ago. She needs to make periodic medical examination observations every 6 months to ensure that the tumour does not return. She also suffers from a stomach ulcer and needs an endoscopy to diagnose her case and determine the necessary treatment. However, she is unable to pay the necessary expenses, and she has resorted to UNHCR and Caritas for help but in vain.
Marwa says that she contacted UNHCR and Caritas four years ago and told them about her health condition, and they promised to call her back but in vain.
Marwa now periodically contacts the UNHCR and she did not receive any response, and she tries to contact Caritas as well but she always finds its number busy, as she put it.
The Complaints System Is Ineffective
Latifa says: "When Syrian refugees contact the UNHCR, they force them to wait for a long period of half an hour or more. In some cases, refugees pay amounts of more than 50 pounds ($3.5) for a staff member to reply to them, especially since they dedicated landline numbers for complaints, which costs refugees more money, while Caritas workers often do not reply to telephones dedicated to receiving refugees' complaints. At the same time, they refuse to receive them at their headquarters. Then how and to where the refugee seeks help? Who deals with emergencies that the refugee is facing? Who saves his life? "
Six cases of those we contacted confirm that they tried to contact Caritas through the numbers that it allocated and most times they find the numbers closed or busy. Many times, no one responds to them. One of the cases said that she called Caritas via 4 numbers daily for 6 months since last January and until early July without a response from them. Other women said that they face neglect from Caritas employees that they tried to communicate through the "WhatsApp" application.
One of the women that the author of the report interviewed said that Caritas is being deceived by some affluent Syrians. Where she knows families who own luxury homes and cars and apply for aid, and when Caritas goes to assess their condition, they rent a modest apartment in a poor area and do not put furniture or anything inside it. They delude Caritas employees that they reside there, and therefore the result of their assessment is good and they receive assistance from the UNHCR.
Lawyer Issam Hamed confirmed that these previous practices occurred on a large scale, as many refugees rent cheap apartments in poor areas, in which they meet the employees of Caritas who carry out assessments to deceive them, even though they live in higher housing areas.
Hamed noted that the field assessments conducted by Caritas are inaccurate. So, the case should be carefully studied by visiting homes, asking neighbours, and following up periodically to ensure that the person resides in this place. They also should ask about his work to determine the eligibility of the case to obtain support.
Arwa (43 years), a divorced woman, says that she left her place of residence in Mansoura governorate and moved to live in Giza Governorate because of the bad treatment by neighbours to her 9-year-old child, in addition to her very poor financial situation that prevented her from paying the rent. So, she moved to live in one of the areas of Faisal Street, which are relatively cheap, and to depend on the aid provided by good people, since she lives alone with her child and does not have a breadwinner. In addition to her critical health condition, she suffers from several diseases and she is unable to secure the necessary medicines to treat her. So, her health condition started gradually to worsen, and despite her contact with Caritas and the UNHCR, they have not provided her with any assistance so far.
UNHCR affirms that it relies on multiple sources of information to issue eligibility decisions relating to cash assistance. This information includes "information available during refugee registration with UNHCR, interview conducted by Caritas staff, as well as other registered information." UNHCR emphasized that it takes into account several factors such as financial situation, well-being and risk assessment and several other variables are considered including the age of the refugee/asylum seeker, place of residence, number of family members, level of education, financial status, ease of access to other assistance, special needs, and medical status among others.
UNHCR pointed out that it compares the files of all refugees to choose the most financially vulnerable and those who are exposed to greater risks.
Latifa accuses some mediators of communicating with refugees and promising to help them in obtaining aid from the UNHCR in exchange for a sum of money ranging between 300 and 1,000 pounds (20 - 65 dollars) and stressed that these practices are widespread.
She said that despite the existence of a law criminalizing such practices among the workers of UN institutions, this phenomenon continues to occur without accountability. "The eligibility process is conducted automatically using an office formula through which human intervention is not possible", says the UNHCR website. It also confirms that the UNHCR has the ultimate decision to grant cash assistance.
The UNHCR stated, through its official website, that it deals seriously with cases of reporting misconduct and calls on all the concerned people to cooperate without reservation with the Office of the Inspector General. The UNHCR requests providing the utmost extent of information and evidence, the place of finding the evidence, details of the incident, its location and a list of names of the involved persons and how this happened, and other information that provides them with means to verify and track the incident to take the necessary action.
The United Nations defines misconduct as "any failure by a staff member to comply with his or her obligations under the Charter of the United Nations, the Staff Regulations and Staff Rules or other administrative issuances, or to observe the standards of conduct expected of an international civil servant. It includes a list of practices including fraud and corruption."
The UNHCR confirms that it applies strict confidentiality standards in addition to other procedural standards and guarantees over the investigations conducted by the Office of the Inspector General, noting that it has dismissed some employees after the accusations against them were proven true.
Aid Delivery Mechanism
The UNHCR begins examining the asylum seeker's physical and medical condition three months after his registration with the UNHCR. After assessing their status and deciding their entitlement to any of the services provided by UNHCR or its partners, UNHCR begins directing the asylum-seeker to its partner organisations for obtaining the service concerned, including financial and medical assistance.
The author of this report contacted a high-ranking official from Caritas in Cairo to obtain a response from him, but he informed us of the need to obtain prior approval from the Caritas administration and the Office of the UNHCR in Egypt and promised to contact us as soon as he gets the approval, however, we could not obtain an official response.
We also contacted the head of the media office of the UNHCR in Egypt, and we asked him to obtain a response to the content of the report, but he also did not respond to us.
During the search by the author of the report for an explanation of the accusations and inquiries included in the report, he contacted one of the officials working with a partner organization of UNHCR's Office in Egypt and told him that UNHCR's budget has been constantly decreasing since 2017, and is annually decreasing which causes considerable pressure on the value of assistance provided by UNHCR to refugees and asylum seekers from various nationalities. So, this forced them to reduce the amount of assistance and services they provide.
He added that UNHCR and its partner organisations and institutions have expenses other than support and the cost of services they provide to refugees/asylum seekers, such as staff wages, office rent, operational expenses and others.
Expenses and Budget of the UNHCR Office and Engagement of Community Leaders
Latifa Doughman suggested that community leaders be involved in the assessments carried out by Caritas for refugees to ensure that the organisation is not deceived by refugees, especially since community leaders are very familiar with the economic conditions of refugees, and their real places of residence, and they are the most knowledgeable people about the extent of the refugees' eligibility for assistance.
Community leaders are a group of activists among refugee communities. They are trained by some UN organisations on ways and mechanisms of assisting refugees, ways to integrate them into the local community, how to assess their conditions and understand their needs, and the basic needs among refugee communities.
Hamed suggested that assessments be conducted periodically and accurately due to the constantly fluctuating financial conditions of refugees.
Reem lives in confusion because of her great financial responsibilities, especially after she lost her only source of income, which is the support she used to receive from the UNHCR. She is distracted about how to secure the necessary food for herself and her children, how she will be able to provide rent for her home so that they avoid being expelled and how she will be able to save the treatment cost for herself and her children so that their health condition does not worsen.