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#WithRefugees: Shifting from Aid to Self-reliance

18 September 2017

Sita Schutt, Founder and Director, Prospero World, UK

Since the word ‘refugee’ was first coined during the flight of the French Huguenots from France to England in the 17th century, the world has undergone substantial remapping and has witnessed the huge displacement of civilian populations as a result of conflict and persecution. Institutions created by the League of Nations in the 1930s identified the need for internationally recognized refugee rights, although it was not until the unprecedented displacement prompted by World War II that the UN refined this legislative protection and produced the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The Refugee Convention (along with its often-cited 1967 Protocol) still forms the legal framework that is the basis of refugee rights today. The basic commitment upheld by the Convention is that of ‘non-refoulement’, a principle that seeks to ensure that no country forcibly returns a person to their country of origin if the individual faces danger or death therein. Many other principles — including the right to education, shelter, and work — are also included in the Convention, which remains fiercely guarded by the world’s leading humanitarian agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); the precepts of this landmark legal document are tirelessly fought for by the global agency.

Today, as we experience the largest-scale refugee crises in history, the UNHCR effectively deploys emergency relief to over 65 million forcibly displaced citizens — including over 22 million refugees — and works in 130 countries with a staff of almost 11,000. However, host countries receiving refugee families today are often themselves located in the world’s poorest and most unstable regions. Although many of them generously maintain open borders to the average 28,000 people that flee for their lives each day, the solutions they offer are limited: refugees either enter ‘camps’ or face unassisted survival in rural or urban areas. In most cases, despite the existence of the Refugee Convention, refugees are not allowed to work or move around freely and therefore become dependent on international aid. On average, displaced individuals spend about 17 years in a transitional state. With little or no options to rebuild their lives or provide for their families, despair and depression easily set in, leaving no other choice but to embark on yet another, often more perilous, journey.

Over a million refugees reached Europe in 2015 and almost 400,000 in 2016, many of them exhausted and demoralized. Since 2015, more than 9,000 have died in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Those who survive do not ask for more aid: they ask for a chance to restore their shattered lives and to reunite their families. They want to work, be productive, and provide for their loved ones, ultimately creating a more stable life.

Many countries — particularly European ones — claim that the ongoing social and economic toll of hosting displaced foreign nationals is unaffordable. Although government spending for the reception and integration of migrants (which includes housing, social protection, and education) varies for each recipient country, the average cost is estimated to be EUR 10,000 per individual for at least the first year. Germany — which received well over 900,000 displaced individuals in 2015 — spent over EUR 16 billion in providing aid that year.

However, the number of refugees who found sanctuary in Europe is relatively small compared to the burden shared by nations such as Jordan, Pakistan, Turkey, Lebanon and Ethiopia. As UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi points out, “If Europe were to welcome the same percentage of refugees as Lebanon in comparison to its population, it would have to take in 100 million refugees.” In 2016, for the third consecutive year, Turkey hosted the largest number of refugees — roughly 2.9 million.

It is clear that the traditional model of support, based on the distribution of charitable aid to refugees, is no longer working. Millions of families are now trapped in this system that, beyond being unsustainable, also creates a spiral of dependence that weakens refugees’ ability to fend for themselves, while potentially exposing them to exploitation, racism, and intolerance. Despite UNHCR’s 2017 budget reaching an extraordinary USD 7.7 billion, the world needs innovative and longer-term thinking for better, sustainable solutions that support displaced individuals’ coping mechanisms, improve resilience, and create realistic solutions to improve their lives.

This is, in fact, already happening in pockets around the world. Betsy Lippman — Chief of Operational Solutions and Transition Section in the Division of Programme Support and Management at UNHCR — is very familiar with the challenges faced by refugees and is helping to lead the institution to explore new avenues that support refugee self-reliance. “No one wants to be dependent on handouts,” comments Betsy. “Dependency takes away people’s dignity and undermines human capital. Ensuring the right to work makes good economic sense for refugees and host countries … refugees want to be productive members of the societies in which they live.”

UNHCR’s well-established graduation program is the adaptation of a successful model used in developing countries as a means of helping people living in extreme poverty to ‘graduate’ to financial independence, or self-reliance. This successful 18-month program is now used widely in situations of protracted displacement. It includes three principal stages: relief from immediate needs (food and shelter), followed by skills training and financial literacy — notably with savings — and, finally, matching the person either to an entrepreneurial role in their own business or to an appropriate wage-earning position. Refugees are appointed a personal mentor who coaches them on this journey.

Another UNHCR initiative currently being developed has recognized the huge potential of the artisanal sector, which, after the agricultural sector, is the second largest employer in the developing world. Standing for Market Access, Design and Empowerment for refugee artisans, the MADE 51 brand connects talented refugee artisans with international markets to sell their unique and authentic hand-made products. UNHCR is now working to scale this initiative and create a sustainable business model by sourcing artisanal ‘hubs’ within the refugee populations, growing their capacity, and providing seed capital and access to both local and global customer bases.

From another perspective, Alexander Betts, professor of forced migration and international affairs at the Oxford University Refugee Studies Centre and one of the leading commentators in the field of migration and displacement, has spent the last few years advocating for the economic inclusion of refugees. Essentially, what underpins his work is a challenge issued to commonplace thinking about refugees as a disempowered and burdensome group and an attempt to shift this thinking to rather consider refugees as economically and socially valuable and productive. “We tend to have a collective assumption that refugees are an inevitable cost or burden to society. But they don’t have to be; they can contribute. What I want to argue is that there are ways in which we can expand that choice set and still benefit everyone else: the host state and communities, our societies, and refugees themselves.”

The most significant way to pursue this outcome in more countries with substantial refugee populations is to establish models and legislation that encourage displaced individuals to be economically self-contingent. “Empowering refugees through work and economic opportunities is key to helping people return to normal and productive lives,” said António Guterres, UNHCR High Commissioner at the time, and now UN Secretary-General, on the signing of an agreement with the International Trade Centre to place special focus on interventions that integrate refugees into the value chains of private-sector companies targeting export markets (especially sectors linked to information technology, agribusiness and handicrafts).

Uganda — which is already hosting almost a million refugees in 2017 — is a stand-out host country in that it provides refugees with the right to pursue employment. Betts cites the results of his own research there, which reveals that at least 21% of refugees in the country’s capital, Kampala, are business owners. Strikingly, 40% of their employees are local Ugandans, illustrating quite effectively the potential of refugees to contribute to the microeconomics of their resident locations.

In 2016, a ‘Jordan Compact’ — agreed between the Jordanian government and the EU to improve the outlook for both Syrian refugees in the country (they host over 655,000) and Jordanians — outlined a series of commitments including not just pledges for aid but also a 10-year agreement on relaxed export duties to the EU in order to stimulate inclusive investment programs. The Jordanian government also agreed on granting 200,000 work permits for Syrian refugees to work in Special Economic Zones; 39,000 have already been issued as of mid-2017. It is in this climate that the multinational furniture retailer IKEA was also able to integrate a line of refugee-made carpets and textiles due for sale in 2019, providing jobs for 200 Syrian refugees. The perception of refugees as being economically productive and resilient begins here, and hopefully others will follow this example and create inclusive initiatives.

In order to facilitate and scale more dynamic policy changes and creative aid responses, the global community must adopt a gamut of innovative and strategic approaches, particularly as the nature of displacement changes form, and in fact gathers momentum. Blankets, tents, and food parcels are still extremely important, but they are no longer enough: the world and its politics are in need of real-time, long-term solutions that will significantly reform the realities of all those affected.