World Refugee Day

Providing social protection to refugee populations

World Refugee Day

Providing social protection to refugee populations

June 20 is World Refugee Day. In the context of 2030 Sustainable Development Goals agenda “to leave no one behind”, what kinds of social protection are provided to refugee populations?

Estimates from the UNHCR – the UN Refugee Agency – suggest that there are over 22 million refugees worldwide. International instruments define and affirm the legal status of refugees. The most important of these are the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees (See Box).

A policy challenge is that refugee households are commonly asset-scarce and refugees’ legal status commonly means exclusion from access to the same social protection benefits as the host population. Supported by the international community, meeting the social protection needs of refugees is now rising on the policy agenda.

Facts and figure on refugees worldwide

  • 17.2 million refugees worldwide under the UNHCR mandate.
  • Over half of all refugees are younger than age 18.
  • 55 per cent come from three countries: South Sudan (1.4 million); Syria (5.5 million); and Afghanistan (2.5 million).
  • The top hosting countries are Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Islamic Republic of Iran, Uganda and Ethiopia.

Source: UNHCR (2018).

Country evidence

Internationally, a number of social protection policy responses to meet the needs of refugee populations offer the basis for distilling policy lessons to facilitate the development of good practice. Contextual issues dictate the choice of policies and practices in different national settings.

Refugees who have lost all their possessions and sources of income commonly require specific measures. Uganda, the African country with the largest refugee population of close to 1 million, is helping to set the pace. Rights accorded to refugees include the right to work and the donation of a piece of land to cultivate. Also given is access to elementary education for refugee children. In all settings, over 50 per cent of refugees are younger than age 18.

Also in Africa, a focus on the needs of refugee children drives Ethiopia’s National Refugee Child Protection Strategy 2017-2019, developed by the UNHCR and its partners.

The opening of frontiers in some European countries in 2015 to refugees acted to spotlight attention in Europe on how national authorities address the immediate policy and human challenges, including meeting the social security needs of refugee populations.

The German Federal Pension Insurance (Deutsche Rentenversicherung Bund) has been one social security administration that has participated in the society-wide task of integrating refugees. As a practical response, the German Federal Pension Insurance seconded staff for the processing of asylum applications and provided office equipment to the authorities concerned. Furthermore, a special team was established to address refugee issues, including the development of coordinated options for sustainable actions with the other pension insurance institutions and authorities.

A recent article in the International Social Security Review by Hagen-Zanker, Ulrichs and Holmes looks at the case of Jordan. The Jordan Compact of 2016 is an agreement between the government of Jordan and the international community that aims to create jobs for Jordanians and Syrian refugees while supporting the post-conflict Syrian community; to finance and build resilience in host communities; and to mobilize grants and financing to support Jordan’s macroeconomic framework.
Estimates suggest that the vast majority of Syrian refugees in Jordan live below the national poverty line and remain trapped in poverty. Child labour is a common strategy applied by refugees to bring income into the household.

Jordan provides an interesting case study since the humanitarian transfer provided to refugees is targeted based on an assessment of vulnerability. Significantly, it provides monthly transfers over several years to the same recipients and offers evidence of the positive impacts of cash transfers for refugee families and households.

Direct and indirect positive impacts

The evidence from Jordan underlines that cash transfers to refugee populations can have both direct and indirect positive impacts on economic and social outcomes.

  • The main expenditure items that cash transfers are directed towards are housing rental costs and utility bills.
  • The receipt of the cash transfer can overcome financial barriers to accessing goods or services such as the costs of medicine, associated health service fees, school uniforms and stationery.
  • Cash transfers can have indirect impacts with potentially important implications for access to services and work. Receiving a regular alternative source of income frees up other income that the household may have.
  • The receipt of a reliable income can also reduce the need to resort to harmful coping mechanisms, for example the drawing down of assets or the use of child labour.
  • Access to a reliable income source also contribute to improved well-being, community participation and social inclusion.

With Turkey and Lebanon also providing cash and in-kind support to refugee families, the international evidence base is growing and the wider policy lesson is clear.

Refugee households are no different from vulnerable households among the host community. Regular cash incomes provided by social protection programmes empower and facilitate individuals and households to self-manage risk and navigate more assuredly through the life course – and not to be left behind.


Hagen-Zanker, J.; Ulrichs, M.; Holmes, R. 2018. “What are the effects of cash transfers for refugees in the context of protracted displacement?”, in International Social Security Review, Vol. 71, No. 2.

UNHCR. 2018. Figures at a glance. Geneva, UNHCR.