Pathways to Self-Reliance for Urban Refugees in Egypt

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Since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011, almost 15% of the Syrian population – more than three million – have fled their homes to find refuge in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. In addition to the psychological trauma, their livelihoods have been threatened. In Egypt, UNHCR has focused on helping urban refugees get back on their feet by using elements of the Graduation Approach, a sequence of interventions proven to help the extreme poor build sustainable livelihoods.

Egypt currently hosts a total refugee population of over 190,000, 75% of which is Syrian. Other nationalities primarily include Iraqis, Sudanese, South Sudanese, Somalis, Ethiopians, and Eritreans. The refugees in Egypt tend to settle in urban areas across the country where, as opposed to camps, identification, outreach, and service delivery is more challenging. They face difficulties in obtaining work permits due to restrictive legislation, which pushes them towards the informal sector. In a context of job scarcity (over 13% unemployment rate in 2014), the presence of refugees in the labor market is perceived as a burden despite their relatively small number in comparison to the Egyptian workforce (0.7%), and usually leads to tensions with the host communities.

Promoting Self-Reliance: Three Pilot Projects in Egypt

With the Syrian conflict dragging on, the need for durable solutions has become an obvious necessity (see the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan). In 2013, UNHCR and its Graduation partners Trickle Up and BRAC University decided to test the Graduation Approach with the aim of helping urban refugees progress from vulnerability to self-sustainability, seeking to make them less reliant on UNHCR’s cash assistance even while still receiving protection services (education, health, psycho-social support).

Thus far, UNHCR has conducted three pilot projects in Egypt. These pilots differ from the original Graduation Approach in that they include wage employment for some participants, which ensures an income to those who do not hold professional skills but are willing to work. For participants falling under the more standard self-employment track, the asset transfer was replaced by a cash contribution. All participants were otherwise given vocational training, health and social development guidance, as well as consumption support under the form of cash assistance. They were coached on savings strategies although refugees in Egypt do not have the possibility to open a bank account. Each participant was also matched with a field worker who carried out regular follow up with both employers and employees. The pilot projects involved not only Syrian refugees (60-70%), but also other protracted refugees (20-30%) and, in an effort to support local communities, Egyptians as well (10%).

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) was the first partner to implement a pilot in Greater Cairo in 2013. CRS selected 580 participants from a pool of 3,450 and worked with them on vocational training, basic resume writing, communication, negotiation, and time management. Professional road maps were tailored for each person which directed them to the most appropriate type of career. This pilot led to around 225 people gaining wage employment.  

2013 Talented Nesma Egypt

Photo Credit: Mohamad Gouda, 2013 CGAP Photo Contest. 

A twin project was developed in Cairo in 2014 by International Development Support and Consulting (IDSC). The project followed similar steps and, from a pool of over 4,500 people, around 1,350 were selected to receive vocational training. Of those program participants, 123 found wage employment and 431 started their own business. Once participants gained employment, UNHCR and partners continued to provide financial support.

In light of the good results achieved in Cairo, a new pilot was implemented in 2014 by Caritas in Alexandria. The recruiting phase of the project started in January and of 2,250 people who received training, 211 succeeded in self-employment and 244 in wage-employment.

Main Findings: Increased Income Levels Through Wage Employment

During 2014, almost 8,000 individuals underwent socio-economic assessments, with half of them receiving training for livelihood purposes, and one third of those trained earning either wage of self-employment.

Since the start of the project, it was clear that wage employment generated, on average, a higher income than self-employment (1,200 Egyptian Poundsversus900 Egyptian Pounds per month). When compared to the income breakdown by nationality, a gap was observed between Egyptians, Syrians and immigrants from other African countries. Egyptians earned 70% more than people from elsewhere in Africa, and Syrians ranked in between these two groups. Immigrants from other countries in Africa were much more likely to be unemployed as compared to Syrians and Egyptians (around 80% for Africans, 20% to 30% for Syrians and Egyptians), and that non-Arabic speakers generated the lowest income.

The findings also confirmed that Syrian refugees have a greater interest in self-employment. The most successful sectors were food processing, textile, hair dressing, and retail. Women also engage to a larger extend in home activities, where they feel safer.

Way Forward

UNHCR selected three partners to expand the project in 2015. The Graduation Approach will thus be implemented in the main areas where refugees are living: Greater Cairo (CRS), Alexandria (Caritas), and Damietta (Resala). The aim is to reach 870 wage-employed and 508 self-employed, including 50% women. Close monitoring and follow-up of self-employed beneficiaries will be a priority, to better understand their situation and tailor future programs accordingly.

At present, cash assistance continues for all. The program’s duration is 28 months and it is only when participants will have sustained income stability over at least 12 months that cash assistance ceases. However, it is now too early to determine whether this will happen.

Thanks to projects building on the Graduation Approach, the overall population enjoys a broader prosperity. Furthermore, stronger social, economic and cultural ties are built between the communities, who also benefit from the knowledge and skills of the refugees. Refugees are also able to enjoy a greater respect for their Human Rights as self-reliance eliminates the use of negative coping mechanisms and gives refugees the chance to build their own future.

Support for the drafting of this article was provided by Clelia Watt, Associate Programme Officer/Reporting, Steven Choka, Community Services Officer and Ragnhild Ek Senior PI/Communications Officer at UNHCR in Cairo.

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03 September 2015 Submitted by Kenneth Karuri (not verified)

Great piece indeed. Am reading the Graduation approach and would be interested in implementing the same in Kenya.

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