Refugee Economics: Success of Self-Reliance Refugee Policy
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.
The Oxford study, titled Refugee Economies: Rethinking Popular Assumptions begins:
Recent displacement from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, and Somalia has increased the number of refugees in the world to 15.4 million. Significantly, some 10.2 million of these people are in protracted refugee situations. In other words, they have been in limbo for at least 5 years, with an average length of stay in exile of nearly 20 years. Rather than transitioning from emergency relief to long-term reintegration, displaced populations too often get trapped within the system.
Uganda’s “Self-Reliance” policy for refugees offers a promising model for other countries struggling with incoming refugees:
‘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. (GE article)
The GE article links to a Journal of Refugee Studies article on Uganda’s Self-Reliance refugee policy. The Uganda policy is low-cost or no-cost to the host country (from the Abstract):
It suggests that far from being passive victims, self-settled refugees are taking control of their lives without any additional external assistance and are planning for the day they can return to their homeland. Consequently, the paper argues that there is reason to believe that local integration is likely to succeed where other models have failed.
One of the difficulties of providing financial aid to support refugees, beyond the billions of dollars and the problems of idleness and dependency, are the incentives created in the aid organizations and bureaucracies. The money flow from governments, foundations, and individual donors is just too large not to attract lots of handlers charging to provide various goods and services. This July, 2014 Guardian article references a report from Médecins Sans Frontières critical of the United Nations, major aid agencies, and their bureaucracies. MSF Report: Where is everyone?: Responding to emergencies in the most difficult places provides detailed analysis of a number of refugee locations, including Jordan.
The Oxford study, Refugee Economies: Rethinking Popular Assumptions counters a number of misguided views of refugees. The view that refugees require more than just temporary help, and could quickly become self supporting if allowed to by local government, is a threat to the agencies, both in the host country and internationally, to manage the longer-term aid, and pay themselves with these funds.
This State Department page has Congressional testimony on U.S. financial support for refugee:
The State Department and USAID are major funders of the top humanitarian organizations responding to the crisis in Syria and the region, providing over $1.3 billion in assistance to date. In an attachment to this testimony, I provide a summary of the multi-faceted response that has been mounted by UN agencies and NGOs working with U.S. support, including the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the World Food Program (WFP), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Here are a few paragraphs from the report on the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan:
As the most easily accessible camp in the highest-profile conflict in the world, Zaatari has also been enormously visible in the media with a daily stream of VIPs through the camp with attendant cameras. In the week that we were there, there was a visit from the World Bank president, while the week before, Angelina Jolie, High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Gutierrez and the Norwegian foreign minister came for World Refugee Day. The week after we left, Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos, European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid Kristalina Georgieva and the Italian foreign minister were due to visit.
Due to both the size and the visibility, the administration and coordination are consequently very heavy, as is the pressure from above on agencies: one implementing partner reported a level of micro-management that they had never seen before, such as being required to submit daily situation and progress reports to their UN donor agency, and receiving 30-50 phone calls a day from their contract holder about minor implementation issues.
Further, it must be said that the Syrian refugees’ own view on conditions in Zaatari appears highly critical. There are frequent demonstrations, and even minor riots, against living conditions, and all informants we spoke to said that the refugee population in the camp was unhappy and difficult to assist.
The Global Envision article ends with a quote from the Oxford study that emphasizes the importance of economic freedom to allow refugees to themselves reduce burdens in host countries:
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.”
Here is a video summary of the Oxford study on refugee economics, and on the Uganda Self Reliance refugee policy story.