This article is part of a new joint SPERI-Finance Watch series on “Untold stories of personal debt in Europe” to which different guest authors contributed.
Approximately 35,000 asylum seekers are currently stranded on Greek islands, as the 2016 EU-Turkey deal forbids them from moving to the mainland. Asylum seekers are in a position of extreme vulnerability, often suffering from physical injuries and serious mental health issues. As part of the Refugee Cash Assistance Programme, most of them receive a monthly financial allowance loaded onto a prepaid card. The scheme, which is said to restore dignity and empower asylum seekers and refugees, was launched by the European Commission in 2016 and implemented in 2017 as a financial and humanitarian response to the so-called ‘refugee crisis’. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), with the support of two humanitarian organisation (Catholic Relief Services and the International Federation of the Red Cross), is in charge of coordinating the programme, from registering eligible asylum seekers to delivering and handling cash cards. Migrants who match the eligibility criteria receive either €90/month where food is provided, or €150/month where it isn’t (for families, the amount depends on the number of family members).
Looking beyond cold numbers and good intentions, what is the impact of the cash card scheme on refugee’s lives? And how is this shaped by the broader societal and institutional context? Do refugees become self-reliant and autonomous, as suggested by the UNHCR and the Commission? This piece investigates the spatial restrictions and disciplinary rules which limit the relative autonomy that asylum seekers obtain through the prepaid cards, as well as the temporary nature of their financial inclusion.
Cash humanitarianism in context
The Cash Assistance Programme in Greece is not an isolated case of financialisation of refugee humanitarianism. The use of prepaid cards in refugee camps has proliferated since 2015, and the UNHCR is currently supporting cash card programmes in many countries across the world, such as Jordan, Turkey, Somalia and Lebanon.
Greece, however, is the first EU member state to implement such a programme. In Greece, the 2008 crisis led in turn to a sovereign debt crisis which was handled via harsh austerity measures. Today, the ‘refugee crisis’ and the ‘financial crisis’ are closely intertwined. As the UNHCR explains, the calculation of the monthly amount allocated to asylum seekers takes into account the national poverty line, the Greek minimum wage, and the national minimum income scheme. The objective, in maintaining the card allowance below the national minimum income, is to ‘avoid negative repercussions’ that could arise from the Greek population in times of economic hardship and increasing poverty. Yet in the prosperous City of London, the cash card scheme is an opportunity rather than a risk. Prepaid Financial Services (PFS), the London-based financial provider involved in the programme, explained that the Cash Assistance Programme in Greece was a way of boosting their ‘humanitarian branding’.
As the boundary between finance and humanitarianism seems increasingly blurred, it is worth assessing what asylum seekers actually gain from cash cards — and what restrictions come with claims of cash empowerment.
Spatial and disciplinary restrictions
In order to receive the monthly financial support , migrants must live in the accommodation provided by the Greek authorities – hotspots, or camps or apartments very far from the city centre. Accommodation and financial support thus form a unique package that asylum seekers need to accept unconditionally. Once they enter the programme, card beneficiaries are subjected to monthly verification checks. These include random phone calls to ensure they are still in Greece, door-knocking to check that they are still in the same accommodation, and face-to-face meetings with humanitarian actors who update information about their legal status.
In addition to these spatial restrictions, there are technical hurdles. Since 2019, asylum seekers need to download the smartphone app Viber, which is the only way for them to communicate with UNHCR if they need to report any technical problem, or if their card is blocked. For many of them, this compulsory digital technology that supplements the use of the prepaid card is a real obstacle. As an asylum seeker in Athens explained, ‘there are too many rules and technologies we need to navigate and engage with in order to freely use the cards we are entitled to’.
Finally, the prepaid cards are not devoid of disciplinary mechanisms. For example, although the possibility to use the card to take cash from ATM machines gives a certain freedom, the card cannot be used to directly purchase alcohol, to make online payments or payments outside Greece. Another example is that if asylum seekers are considered to have done something wrong in their accommodation centre, a share of their monthly allowance might be deducted as a form of punishment. Here, the prepaid card as a digital means to regain autonomy slips into a punitive tool.
Hence, the financialisation of refugee humanitarianism in Greece follows a peculiar logic, which I call the ‘refugee paradox’: asylum seekers are requested to act as if they were autonomous subjects while also being subjected to spatial and disciplinary restrictions; and to act as if they were responsible card beneficiaries while being dependent on humanitarian actors that impose multiple rules on them.
Trapped in temporariness
In addition to this, the type of financial inclusion proposed by the Cash Assistance Programme is only temporary, trapping migrants in an uncertain present. First, asylum seekers can only benefit from the prepaid card while their asylum application is under examination. Once the process is over, whether they are granted refugee status or not, they are excluded from the programme. Second, the prepaid cards are not associated with a bank account: rather, all prepaid cards delivered in Greece are connected to a unique UNHCR financial wallet. This means that card beneficiaries cannot transfer money to their own personal account, nor can they use the card as their own bank account.
According to the financial provider Prepaid Financial Services, the prepaid card system ‘is just a temporary financial and humanitarian relief’. Thus, they ‘do not see these asylum seekers as potential future clients’ because ‘most of them will likely be deported to their countries of origin, others won’t have the economic means for opening a bank account in Europe or won’t match the legal criteria’.
The temporariness, spatial restrictions and disciplinary mechanisms enshrined in the Cash Assistance Programme make it difficult to believe in the idea that cash equals freedom, and contradict the image of refugees as ‘entrepreneurs of themselves’. Finance, when it is intertwined with humanitarianism, takes on a particular reality. Refugees are subjected to an ambivalent obligation: they must act as if they were autonomous and responsible consumers, but at the same time, they must fully comply with spatial and disciplinary restrictions imposed by Western humanitarian actors.
Martina acknowledges support from the British Academy