Refugees and migrants: Out of sight, out of mind?

  • October 16, 2017

  • Brussels, Belgium

By Anna Ferracuti

For further information contact:
Karima Wardak
Knowledge Management Senior Associate, UNCDF-MM4P

Anna Ferracuti
Knowledge Management Consultant, UNCDF-MM4P Brussels


Nepali victims of the earthquake.
© Getty Images

In Africa and Asia, UNCDF-MM4P partners up to help refugees and migrants rebuild their lives.

Europe has increased efforts to tackle the migration crisis that is hitting its southern shores and northern sensitivities. What is missing in the public debate is any meaningful discussion of migration from Africa, within Africa and towards Africa. And from, within and towards Asia too. At a conference in Brussels, the UN agency UNCDF shines lights on how refugees and migrants are first helped before they approach the old continent.

Watching or reading the news on the mass flow of migrants towards Europe, what many ignore is that before boarding boats, many refugees and migrants look for relief in neighboring countries first.

The biggest refugee camp in the world is called Bidi Bidi and it is not in Libya, Lebanon, Italy or Germany. It is in Uganda.

Uganda has very progressive refugee laws. Refugees are entitled to work and access a piece of land to cultivate. And they have freedom of movement in and out of the camp. How long do they stay? Generally, between 12 and 15 years. Do they need humanitarian assistance? Yes, they do.

Thanks to humanitarian assistance by UN agencies and NGOs, refugees are starting to integrate with the local community and economy. “Slowly but surely refugees are rebuilding their lives,” says the Knowledge Management Consultant of the UNCDF programme MM4P in Uganda, Naomi de Groot. They are doing so through money support for income-generating activities, subsidized phones, SIM cards and a reliable network, she adds.

Receiving money on their phones rather than cash provides refugees with safety, a tool to store or spend money as needed, and to place or receive calls to reconnect with their loved ones.

This raises the question: why give money directly rather than deliver in kind? Because money gives people the dignity of choice. Choice on what to buy, when and where. It also supports the local and regional economy because people tend to spend locally.

In Zambia, UNCDF works with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to digitize the distribution of cash in the Meheba camp, where money is sent bi-monthly to new arrivals and vulnerable groups of children under 16, female-headed households, the elderly and disabled. UNCDF and UNHCR first conducted market research to assess needs and challenges, then they brought providers of digital financial services to the camp. The visit helped them see what solution would work best. This experiment worked well and the project kicked off in April this year.

But conflicts or war are not the only reasons why people choose to leave their countries. Men and women have always migrated to earn a better living.

In Senegal, migrant workers send remittances – a share of their income sent in payment or as a gift to individuals in their own country. These remittances account for 44% of the total transfers from abroad. 80% of this money is sent through formal money transfer companies, cashed out at an agent and spent mainly on day-to-day consumption, education, family expenses and religious events. The rest is sent via shadowy informal channels that are generally riskier.

The problem is that recipients do not have an account in their name and rely on money-transfer agents, if there are any around. Mobile money allows nominative accounts, and UNCDF works closely with the private sector to reach the rural areas with financial services that are designed for and distributed near those who use them.

For further evidence of the power of remittances, look at Nepal. The earthquake that hit Nepal in 2015 killed over 9,000 people and destroyed about 800,000 houses and buildings. Afterwards, the country suffered a 135-day trade disruption with India, which accounts for around 65% of Nepal’s trade.

Nevertheless, the next year, the country’s GDP grew, Nepal increased its Human Development Index score and banks reported an average jump in net profits of 25%. A miracle? No, remittances.

In Nepal, UNCDF is working with IME Ltd., a leading remittance company, to develop a mobile wallet whereby recipients can sign up and have the money stored and accessible through an App. The mobile wallet offers interest-bearing savings accounts and the possibility to make deposits, pay utility bills and withdraw at their convenience. It makes a huge difference if you have US$2000 cash in hand and US$2000 in an account. The Knowledge Management Consultant for UNCDF-MM4P in Nepal, Aliska Bajracharya, commented: “The way you approach that money will be different. You tend to spend it when you see it”.

This new digital way of managing income and transfers, be it remittance or cash-based aid, helps refugees and migrant rebuild their lives and the lives of their community of origin.

About MM4P

Mobile Money for the Poor (MM4P) is a programme launched by UNCDF in partnership with the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The MasterCard Foundation. MM4P provides support to digital financial services (DFS) in a selected group of least developed countries (LDCs) to demonstrate how the correct mix of financial, technical and policy support can build a robust DFS ecosystem that reaches low income people in LDCs.

For more information, visit or follow @UNCDFMM4P and UNCDF MM4P on LinkedIn.


The UN Capital Development Fund makes public and private finance work for the poor in the world’s 47 least developed countries (LDCs). With its capital mandate and instruments, UNCDF offers “last mile” finance models that unlock public and private resources, especially at the domestic level, to reduce poverty and support local economic development. This last mile is where available resources for development are scarcest; where market failures are most pronounced; and where benefits from national growth tend to leave people excluded.