Is the UN issuing money to migrants trying to enter the US?

We came across the following post on the social media platform Reddit:

Posted on r/Conservative, which describes itself as ‘the largest conservative subreddit’, the post contains a screenshot and a link to a post on X (formerly Twitter). The X post—from a blue-ticked account called ‘Clown World’—claims to have video proof of a Haitian in Mexico with a ‘money card’ issued by the United Nations (UN).

‘Is this who is funding the crisis?’, the caption adds, insinuating that the recent surge in unauthorised border crossings into the United States from Mexico is being instigated by the UN.

When we did a keyword search of the caption in the X post, we found that the content had been reproduced from an article from 20 January 2022 titled ‘In Mexico’s Deep South, the United Nations Explains Handing Cash to U.S.-Bound Migrants’ on the website of the Centre for Immigration Studies (CIS). An image of the same Haitian migrant, named Luis Ponce, is included in the article.

CIS has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre, an American civil rights organisation. The article had also been featured in the Washington Examiner, which has been assessed to be a right-biased news source with a mixed record of factual reporting.

The article by CIS says that the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is giving ‘cash debit cards’ to migrants transiting through Mexico on the way to the US. Alluding to previous CIS reports, the article states that the UN is ‘sharply escalating the amounts of cash’ given to migrants through a programme called ‘cash-based interventions’ (CBIs). They add that the payments are ‘unrestricted… unconditional’ and can pay for ‘transportation costs to move with migrant concentrations’.

Aid without an Agenda

The CIS article concludes with a Q&A with a UN Spokesperson, Silvia Garduno, who states that UNHCR provides humanitarian assistance in the form of cash to migrants in Mexico.

Contradicting the assertions in the CIS articles that the payments are unrestricted, Garduno says that the humanitarian cash assistance is available ‘only to individuals with particular vulnerabilities’ who are seeking asylum in Mexico and that the ‘strictly regulated, short-term cash assistance’ is targeted to those who meet the criteria. Specifically, she adds that it is provided to help meet basic living expenses while their asylum applications are being processed, which may take three to four months.

When we sought to verify the details from official UN sources, we found that there was a policy of cash-based interventions (CBIs) that was being implemented by UNHCR. According to UNHCR, these are cash transfers to ‘provide protection, assistance and services to vulnerable displaced persons… (and) allow them to meet their most pressing needs, build and support livelihoods and facilitate voluntary return.

UNHCR is scaling up the use of CBIs in preference over in-kind assistance as CBIs are a more dignified form of assistance and offer more flexibility to displaced persons. They also make people less likely to resort to harmful coping strategies, such as survival sex, child labour, family separation or forced marriage, and directly benefit local economies and communities.

While some cash assistance is restricted for the purchase of specific items, the largest proportion of CBIs are in the form of multi-purpose cash assistance (MPC), which are unrestricted cash transfers which prioritise beneficiary choice and provide greater flexibility for displaced households to meet their needs.

Other news articles on the UNHCR site detailed an integration programme led by UNHCR that have helped refugees relocate within Mexico to settle and find work after applying for asylum. Participants in the programme are supported with their initial temporary lodging and finding out about their housing and work options, and are then provided with one-off cash grants to cover their first month of rent and related costs while settling in.

Humanitarian Assistance, Mischaracterised

Digging a little deeper into the origin of the claims on the Reddit post, we found that CIS and the articles author, Todd Bensman, had habitually attributed migrant numbers to UN humanitarian assistance programmes.

In November 2021, Bensman tweeted that the UN IOM (International Organisation for Migration) was ‘helpfully dol(ing) out debit cards to aspiring US border crossers’, claims that were republished by Gateway Pundit, a news site populated with far-right conspiracy theories. These claims were factchecked and found to be misleading by AFP Fact Check.

It is therefore true that UNHCR is providing cash-based assistance to vulnerable displaced people in Mexico. However, the purpose of the assistance is to support humanitarian needs and to assist with settling in the country, rather than to help migrants enter the US.

There is no evidence to suggest that beneficiaries of CBIs are linked to the rise in border crossings, and the author appears to be scapegoating the UN for the rising number of arrivals at the US border.

As the content has been reposted from close to two years ago, it is likely to have been an attempt to mislead viewers to the nature of the situation on the US border.

While some elements of the claim are true, the claim is misleading and false in its core assertion that the UN is funding migrants’ attempts to reach the US border from Mexico.

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