Research in Brief: Refugee Economies
Alexander Betts, Naohiko Omata
There is a global displacement crisis. Around the world more people are displaced than at any time since the Second World War, and there are around 20 million refugees. Yet alongside this trend of rising numbers, governments’ political willingness to provide access to protection and assistance is in decline. In the face of these challenges, the existing global refugee regime is not fit for purpose. It tends to view refugees and displacement as a uniquely humanitarian issue. When people have to leave their homes or cross borders, the conventional response is to meet their immediate needs in terms of food, shelter, clothing, water, and sanitation. The approach is broadly effective for providing emergency relief, but in the long run, it can lead to dependency. Over half the world’s refugees are in protracted refugee situations, having been in exile for at least 5 years. For these people, the average length in exile is around 17 years. From Kenya to Thailand, many are hosted in refugee camps in which they do not have the right to work or freedom of movement. Effectively, they are ‘warehoused’ pending an opportunity to return home, with significant implications for human rights and international security. This conventional approach is unsustainable. Host countries are closing borders; international donors are less willing to indefinitely support large numbers of refugees within camps; and refugees embark on dangerous journeys in search of protection. In this context, there is a need to rethink refugee assistance. Existing approaches too often ignore the skills, talents, and aspirations of refugees themselves. Yet refugees have capacities. They need not inevitably be a ‘burden’ on host states but have the potential to contribute economically as well as socio-culturally. Around the world, even under the most constrained circumstances, and sometimes under the radar, refugees in camps and urban areas engage in significant economic activity, and in doing so often create opportunities for themselves and others. Development-based solutions have for a long time been recognised as one way to overcome the worst consequences of protracted refugee situations. There has been a longstanding debate on the transition from ‘relief-to-development’ in refugee work. However, such approaches have historically suffered from a range of weaknesses. They have generally been state-centric, relying upon the presumption that donor governments might provide additional development assistance to induce host states to commit to self-reliance or long-term local integration for refugees. What has been lacking is a focus on the market-based activities of refugees themselves.