“Without this money, I’d be in the streets”, says Venezuelan supported by UNHCR

Venezuelan manicurists Silany and Francis arrived in Brazil a month ago, in the middle of the new coronavirus pandemic and were unable to get a job because of the social isolation measures.

Thanks to a cash transfer programme of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), they will be able to cover their basic living, food and medicine expenses.

Get to know the history of the refugees who currently live in Brasília, in the Federal District, and learn how to help.

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The Venezuelan manicurists Silany, 32 years old, and Francis, 21, arrived in Brazil a month ago, sharing the same fear: how to make a living during the new coronavirus pandemic, when there’s a reduction in job opportunities and income generation caused by physical distancing measures.

With commercial activity in the country mostly paralyzed and a drastic reduction in the number of companies that were hiring, they didn’t imagine that they would face so many difficulties while trying to rebuild their lives in Brazil.

Both didn’t give up. With the characteristic resilience of refugees and migrants, they distributed their resumes and looked for possible employment, but they were unsuccessful. Without a job prospect in sight, Silany and her family (her husband and three children) went to live with her mother, near Brasília. Francis, who was temporarily staying with friends, rented a room and also moved to the Federal District with her partner and her son.

The situation was complicated in Silany’s mother’s home as well. Five other people already lived there. Her mother, who had arrived in Brazil in August 2019 and had been working as a housekeeper, lost her income because of the physical distancing measures. The threat of eviction came knocking at the door when they were three months late with their rent payment.

Despite this fragile start, the two Venezuelans persevered. They shared concerns that are common to many refugees and migrants (and Brazilians) who have lost their sources of income due to the reduction of economic activity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic: life goes on, the bills arrive and money is needed to maintain the family with dignity and security.

As a response to the global challenges generated by the new coronavirus and as a way to support the most vulnerable refugee population during the pandemic period, UNHCR is strengthening its emergency financial support program – known as the CBI (Cash Based Intervention).

Silany and Francis are among the most recent beneficiaries of this programme. Last month both received a debit card called “UNHCR Support”, with which they can make withdrawals or payments to cover urgent and priority expenses, such as housing, food and health.

“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 programme card at the headquarters of the Institute for Migration and Human Rights (IMDH), which partners with UNHCR to help refugees in the Federal District.

National coverage – In the first four months of the year, UNHCR disbursed over one million reais in CBI transfers. Almost 700 families have received assistance, among them 563 that are headed by women. In total, more than two thousand people have benefited from the programme this year.

According to UNHCR data, most of the beneficiaries this year are of Venezuelan nationality, which reflects the large flow of refugees and migrants from the country to Brazil. But the programme has also served refugee families from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia, Cuba, Syria and Morocco, among others. Financial support is provided by UNHCR partners in different parts of the country.

In São Paulo, the CBI programme is managed by Cáritas Arquidiocesana de São Paulo, also a partner of UNHCR. Vanessa, a 30-year-old woman from Venezuela, recently went to the organization to receive the debit card.

Vanessa has been living in Brazil for one year and is now unemployed. The economic downturn caused by the pandemic has caused her increased worry and difficulty in finding a job. “I’ve been sleeping and waking up concerned about what tomorrow will bring”, she said.

“I’m really struggling to make ends meet”, Vanessa said. “I can’t find a job and I have been depending my neighbor’s help to support myself and my four children. This card from UNHCR will improve our lives a lot at this difficult time.”

Criteria – The selection of the card recipients is based on criteria established by UNHCR and social assistance teams from the partner institutions. To qualify, an applicant needs have certain documents required in Brazil, such as the protocol required to seek asylum, residence and a CPF number. Criteria that will be applied are the applicant’s inability to meet basic needs, children who are unaccompanied, people with medical conditions or special needs, elderly people at risk, single parents, and people who are survivors of violence.

The programme has been fundamental for the strategy of internalization, implemented by the federal government in the context of Operation Welcoming, which voluntarily transfers Venezuelan refugees and migrants living in Roraima and Amazonas to other regions of the country with better prospects for economic and social integration.

Those who are relocated to other cities with a job and who can live independently from shelters supported by UNHCR use the card to buy basic items and pay rent until they receive their first paycheck. Those who are still living in shelters receive resources to cover the family expenses and stabilize themselves financially, creating conditions to enable them to eventually leave the shelter and become self-sufficient in the host city.

Many asylum seekers and refugees need additional support, especially to meet their health care needs, to ensure their safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Normally, these people access the public health system, which now is overwhelmed because of the response to the pandemic. As a result, they need additional support to cover medication costs and other assistance that is difficult to obtain through the Unified Health System (SUS).

“The financial assistance for refugees allows them to take care of their needs in a dignified way and to contribute to the local economy in an assertive way. The UNHCR CBI programme provides protection, assistance and services to those who are most vulnerable, based on their actual needs”, said Cecilia Alvarado, responsible for the UNHCR programme in Brazil.

Support is distributed following an analysis of the criteria that will show the level of vulnerability of each family. “The analysis will vary according to the profile and needs of families,” explained Paula Coury, IMDH Integration Manager. “There are many families who need help so that they can organize, stabilize and start to generate their own income,” she said.

“We’ve noticed an increasing demand in the requests for assistance from refugees, mainly to cover two expenses: rent and food. We’re amplifying the communication channels to meet these demands, but we’re receiving an average of 50 requests per day”, said Cleyton Abreu, coordinator of Caritas São Paulo.

Both IMDH and Cáritas SP (as well as other UNHCR partner organizations) are adjusting their procedures to continue making transfers from the CBI programme to the most vulnerable refugees. Evaluations of their requests are made remotely – by phone or video conference – and documents that were previously physically presented can now be sent electronically, via email or by mobile application.

The information sent is reviewed in ProGress, a UNHCR electronic register system used all over the country. First time recipients of the card will receive it in person. The cards that have already been distributed with be recharged electronically with additional funds. On average, the disbursements cover expenses for three months and can be renewed, depending on need.

Donor support – UNHCR finances the CBI programme in Brazil thanks to support from donors. These resources supplement specific donations from the Luxembourg Government and the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).

The fund also finances the distribution of essential non-food items (such as personal hygiene and cleaning kits) and activities to prevent and combat gender-based violence.

The donations from the Luxembourg Government also support the LEAP project (Leadership, Empowerment, Access and Protection), aimed at women refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. This project is implemented by UNHCR with UN Women and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to promote initiatives for the empowerment and integration of Venezuelans in Brazil.

By 2020, UNHCR’s objective is to serve around 15 thousand people through the emergency financial support project, requiring a budget of approximately 2 million US dollars. The fundraising continues, as UNHCR still needs 1.2 million US dollars to meet its goal and respond to the increased the number of vulnerable refugees and potential participants in the programme.