Why it’s time to rethink approaches to refugee assistance

Value Chains

Why it’s time to rethink approaches to refugee assistance

Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

It may be time for the international community to change its approach to refugee assistance, according to a new report from Oxford University.

Refugees who have freedom to move and work in the host country can be a boon to local economies and ease the financial drain that caring for the 51 million people forcibly displaced has put on global humanitarian aid, the report found.

The international humanitarian system gave almost $3 billion to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2013. But, budgets struggle to keep up with the challenge. The cost to run Zaatari, the world’s second-largest refugee camp, and fourth largest city in Jordan, is $500,000 a day.

People fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan and Rwanda have found refuge in Uganda, where the ‘Self-reliance’ policy allows refugees freedom of movement, as well as the right to work or run a business. The economic lives of refugees in Uganda, how they interact with the private sector and how they use technology challenged five myths about refugees.

Refugees are economically isolated. In reality, the remote location of refugee camps has not prevented them from becoming a hub of economic activity. Refugees in Uganda trade across nationality groups and are connected to the international supply chain. Maize grown in refugee camps is traded across Uganda and exported to neighboring countries. Small shops are a common business venture for Somali and Congolese refugees in Uganda who import goods from Kenya, China and India.

Refugees are a burden on the host state. Actually, refugees make active contributions to the Ugandan economy with their purchasing power and as job creators. Ugandan businesses rely on refugees as customers, suppliers, distributors and employees. Refugee entrepreneurs in Kampala employ an average of 2.4 people and two people on average in the rural refugee settlements.

Refugees are economically homogenous. The researchers found refugees in Uganda use a range of livelihood activities from farming and animal husbandry to food-related businesses, beauty care, and entertainment. Innovative transportation and maize milling businesses have grown and often employ others. Even among farmers, incomes vary with a huge deviation around the mean of $29 a month.

Refugees are technologically illiterate. In reality, refugees in Uganda use mobile-phones and the internet for income-generating activities, often at higher levels than Ugandan nationals. In Kampala, 96 percent of refugees use mobile phones and 30 percent use the internet to transfer money, engage with customers or suppliers or learn new business skills. Many refugee entrepreneurs in Uganda adapt tools to create new technologies to support their businesses.

Refugees are dependent on humanitarian assistance. But, that is not what the researchers found. Many refugees in Kampala receive no support of any kind. Nearly all - 99 percent - of rural refugee families in Uganda said they had some form of income-generating activity. When asked what kind of assistance they wanted, refugees did not consider financial assistance a top priority. Education, resettlement options and business advice were ranked highly.

Refugees spend almost 20 years in exile on average, often confined to camps where they lack the right to work or move freely. Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp in eastern Kenya, is 22 years old and home to almost 10,000 third-generation refugees born in the settlement.

Living with an uncertain future does not stop the entrepreneurial drive in many refugee camps from flourishing. Zaatari has 700 shops and Dadaab turns over $25 million in refugee-run, camp-based business. But, the ability to make a sustainable living often is restricted.

The ongoing Syrian war, tension in Iraq and multiple crises across sub-Saharan Africa will increase the refugee population and strain on host countries - 86 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing countries.

The United Nations, host countries and aid agencies need strategies like Uganda’s ‘Self-reliance’ policy to decrease refugee dependence and free aid dollars to be used more effectively.

Understanding the complex economic systems created by refugees has the potential to turn humanitarian challenges into sustainable opportunities, the report states.

Refugees shouldn’t be viewed as only victims, but people with skills, talents and aspirations capable of generating economic activity.”

Learn more about the Syrian refugee crisis.

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