Accommodating refugees: learning lessons from past experience

Accommodating refugees: learning lessons from past experience

Howard White | 7th March, 2022

As the war in Ukraine creates a new wave of refugees, Howard White reflects on lessons learnt from past refugee situations about the need to support refugees in getting gainful employment in their host countries.

One of the books on my, surprisingly short, ‘must read’ books in international development is Barbara Harrell-Bond’s Imposing Aid, an anthropological study of Ugandan refugees in Sudan in the early 1980s. Published in 1986, the book makes a compelling case for investing in the economic development of host communities as the main focus of refugee programmes.

The rationale for this approach comes from recognizing that refugees will remain refugees for months and years, or even permanently, not for days and weeks.  So, it makes sense to draw on the skills and experience of displaced persons, who include many professionals. Harrell-Bond documents how trained Ugandan doctors were left sitting idle and dependent on handouts whilst medical students from the UK were flown in to deliver health services. There is a racial element here, epitomized in the very memorable quote ‘anyone with a white face could get a job’. I know it’s memorable as I read the book over 30 years ago, and I still remember it! It makes sense to use the skills of the refugees as it is more cost effective. It also makes sense because it preserves their dignity.

Providing work in camps is one source of livelihoods for refugees but it is not enough. To support a broader range of livelihood strategies, economic opportunities need to be supported locally. Cash transfers in humanitarian settings have become popular, and the injection of cash into the local economy is welcome (see the excellent Campbell review on cash transfers in humanitarian settings). But more direct support to livelihoods is also desirable – a key approach being the creation of employment opportunities in host communities.

There is an additional compelling reason to undertake economic interventions in host communities. That is to reduce the resentment which will understandably develop in these communities when they see the huge volume of resources going into refugee camps – the trucks laden with goods literally trundling past their doorstep, when they get nothing. Harrell-Bond says that there was so much money for the camps that refugees were being flown to Paris for medical treatment.

Barbara Harrell-Bond made the case for economic investments in the mid-80s. So, I was surprised to be told just a few years ago that that there was a ‘new idea’ to undertake economic investments in refugee settings. The good news is that there are now many such projects and studies of them. A new Campbell review, supported by CEDIL, will summarize what we know about these projects.

But this blog post is motivated not by the desire to promote that review, which will be ready only at the end of this year, but to urge governments across Europe to note these lessons as more than a million Ukrainian refugees start to arrive.

Help these people get jobs! The United Kingdom is experiencing labour shortages across the board – professionals in the health service, qualified lorry drivers, semi-skilled workers for farms, and so on. The priority should be on integration programmes (language education, qualification verification and conversion, support to attend relevant technical training and so on). Public opinion may quickly shift if Ukrainian refugees spend months in hotels at public expense. This has already happened for Afghan refugees. If the tide has to turn, refugees would need support for getting into gainful employment and becoming net contributors to society.

Howard White is Research Director CEDIL and Director of Evaluation and Evidence Synthesis at the Global Development Network.

Image credit: Simon James

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