Mobile wallets bring agency, dignity to refugees

Since November, digital e-wallets have provided agency and dignity to the more than 100,000 Syrian refugees living in two refugee camps in Jordan, and that’s a game changer, says the UN refugee agency, UNHCR.

“The mobile wallet is a game changer because it’s not just about [refugees] receiving assistance anymore,” says Mette Karlsen, UNHCR’s cash team leader. “It’s about building toward a future where they can actually manage their own money and they can make their own decisions.” As well as refugees, the wallets also benefit donors, humanitarian and development actors alike.

Za’atari camp, the larger of the two, hosts over 80,000 refugees and is located 10 km east of the northern Jordanian city of Mafraq. Azraq camp hosts close to 40,000 refugees and is located in northeastern Jordan. But only 18% of refugees in Jordan live in the camps – the rest live in communities.

Um Tuqa at the tenth #WithRefugees bazaar in December 2022, selling some of her food to visitors. UNHCR/ Roland Schönbauer

“Mobile wallets facilitate greater economic Inclusion of refugees”, says Karlsen. “They help refugees move away from a solely cash-based economy, which helps them to diversify their income generation and facilitates the creation of their businesses.”

Ultimately, mobile wallets will lead to greater “financial inclusion” and allow refugees to contribute to the Jordanian economy, she says. “Mobile wallets not only help refugees to meet most basic needs in the short term, but also unlock tremendous opportunities for greater self-reliance in the medium and longer term.”

The e-wallets provide dignity – refugees don’t have to queue in line or travel to distribution centres. Refugees can manage their household budgets independently of timelines set by humanitarian agencies. And e-wallets mean they can buy from others who also have wallets, such as the town shoemaker or school supply shop owner.

Mona Al Shbeeb, known as Um Tuqa to friends, lives in Amman with her 14-year-old daughter who was severely injured by chemical shelling in Syria in 2015. They fled so Tuqa could get medical treatment. While Um Tuqa worked as a beauty artist in a hair salon in Syria, she has slowly been earning a small income by preparing and selling food to friends and neighbours. She aspires to formalise into a proper business called “Shu Zaki”, meaning how delicious in Arabic.

She signed up for a mobile wallet from the very beginning and uses hers to make payments as well as receive cash assistance.  “It made my life so much easier because I didn’t have to go anywhere to pay my bills,” she says. “I pay water, electricity and phone bills while sitting on my couch.” She also uses it to receive advance payments from her few clients for the food she produces. Previously, she faced losses when clients would cancel their orders after she had prepared the food.

Za’atari, Foreign and Commonwealth Office – Wikimedia Commons

The e-wallets also get around a major problem for most refugees – lack of the official documentation needed to open a bank account. A mobile wallet lets them handle financial transitions without a bank account – all they need is a phone with a SIM card. UNHCR and partners are providing basic financial literacy trainings, including for home-based, women-owned businesses across Jordan.

Mobile wallets also make UNHCR’s funds go further, because they save staff time and logistical costs. Even distributing ATM cards is more expensive than using mobile wallets, which had already reached 40% of Syrian refugees living in towns and villages by December 2022. 

In 2018, the agency launched a pilot project with eWallets to transfer aid to 750 Syrian refugees who were receiving a DAFI scholarship, and then expanded it during the pandemic. It selected Umniah’s UWallet based on its proposed cost and services, although refugees can use any of Jordan’s financial-service providers. 

Before eWallets, UNHCR, the World Food Programme (WFP), and members of the Common Cash Facility used iris technology, ATM cards, or cash in hand to provide assistance.

UNHCR distributes cash assistance to about a quarter of a million of the most vulnerable refugee women, men and children in Jordan, whose spending benefits Jordanian landlords and local food markets. In 2021, the US$117 million distributed through its cash program alone was spent entirely in the Jordanian economy. On average, the amount distributed per refugee and family can vary between 40 Jordanian Dinar (JOD, about US$ 56) and 125 JOD (some US$176), depending on whether they live in a community or a camp.


A record 98 per cent of refugees in camps use mobile wallets. UNHCR, Dec. 2022

Electronic Refugee Aid. Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2023

How cash assistance via mobile wallet transformed a refugee’s business in Jordan UNHCR, Apr. 28, 2023

Digital payments to refugees – a pathway towards financial inclusion. UNHCR, Dec. 2020

Cover image: Photo by Rodion Kutsaiev on Unsplash