BEKAA VALLEY — Across this stretch of eastern Lebanon, some 360,000 Syrian refugees have been living in muddy informal settlements scattered across villages. Whether crammed into flats or stuffed into tents, they are part of the one million Syrians who now live in Lebanon.

Although they registered with the UN Refugee Agency when they arrived, they are not recognized by authorities in Lebanon, which hasn't signed the Geneva Conventions. These refugees don't have the right to work though some of them do so illegally. To survive, they rely on humanitarian aid. World Food Program coupons allow them to buy $27 worth of food per person every month in certified shops. The UN Refugee Agency gives them $40 of fuel for heating.

The Lebanon Cash Consortium, a group of NGOs that includes Acted, Care and World Vision International, began to provide cash assistance two years ago. Eligible families are given a MasterCard on which $175 is transferred every month. They can withdraw this amount at any ATM in the country, and are free to spend it as they so choose.

Issam Darwish, an undocumented Syrian who lives with his wife and three children in Lebanon, spends part of this meager sum in attorney fees, to get documents and passports. His 4-year-old daughter Yara was born in Lebanon but doesn’t have official ID. Like her, about 44,000 children aged under 5 have been born to Syrian parents on Lebanese soil but remain undocumented. They are recognized neither by Syria nor by Lebanon.

Other refugees spend the cash they receive on medicine. Turkiya al Abdallah and her blind husband, who came from a village near the Syrian city of Homs, live in camp in El-Marj. They say they left with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Turkiya broke her leg as they fled Syria, which required an expensive operation in Lebanon. With the cash, she says she also buys medicine for her hypertension and her husband's heart disease.

Attalah, who lives in the tent next to the Al Abdallahs, uses the money for heating, clothes for her children and "to buy meat, once or twice a month."

Direct cash seems to be the future of humanitarian aid — Photo: Lebanon Cash Consortium

Eid Sattuf and his wife Nadine arrived in Lebanon in 2012. They have five children. The oldest is aged 11, the youngest is 3 months old. They spend the money on fuel, milk and sanitary towels. "Before, when I needed something, I didn't dare ask my husband but now I can," says Nadine with a smile.

Direct cash seems to be the future of humanitarian aid. It’s now replacing bags of rice and food trucked from abroad. With the refugee crisis, Lebanon has become one of the pioneers of this type of aid, together with Turkey, which has started to develop it after striking a deal with the EU on containing migrants. The European Commission and its ECHO humanitarian program help fund the Lebanon Cash Consortium with a budget that skyrocketed to $92 million in 2016 as the migrant crisis took hold.

"The watchword since the 2015 crisis is that all humanitarian aid must be aimed at keeping refugees where they are," says Fabrice Balanche, who has conducted research on refugees in Lebanon.

For Fabrice Martin, who heads the ECHO program's local office in Lebanon, the option of offering no-strings-attached cash offers many advantages: It "avoids handouts and paternalism" and it "gives back beneficiaries some autonomy and dignity," he says.

"It's a minimal social protection for the most vulnerable of refugees," says Martin. Another advantage is that it's a direct investment in the local economy. Importing resources, on the other hand, requires costly logistics.

Is there any misuse? According to World Vision International, which implements the program for more than 7,000 Syrian families in the Bekaa Valley, there's no embezzlement. "All reports show that the cash is used for basic needs," says Yara Chehayed, the NGO's communication coordinator in Lebanon, who visits the camps several times a week.

A question remains: How long can it last? Many refugees are worried that aid might stop. The expiration date on their MasterCards is 2021. Refugees are told this has nothing to do with the end of the program.

"The return of refugees remains a goal," says Martin. "But it can only be achieved with massive help to rebuild their country of origin."

See more from Syria Crisis here