Let's Hear It for the Hosts

By Jeff Crisp
Syrian refugee children in Iraq

When masses of refugees escape from one developing country and find sanctuary in another, they invariably place serious pressures on the people, land, environment, water supply, infrastructure, and public services of the areas where they settle. And yet the needs of refugee-hosting communities are all too often unrecognized and unmet.

This important gap in the humanitarian response to refugee emergencies is caused by a number of different factors.

First, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and its non-governmental partners have always been preoccupied with providing protection and assistance to new arrivals, and they consider it beyond their mandate and means to support host populations. This approach has been reinforced by the fact that refugees have normally been accommodated in large and highly visible camps, whereas scattered host communities are much easier to ignore.

Second, while humanitarian agencies have for many years looked to development organizations to meet the needs of host communities, this has rarely happened in practice. And that is no surprise. Development organizations work at a much slower pace than relief agencies, are unaccustomed to working in emergency situations, and rarely have a presence in the field.   

Third, the governments of countries with large refugee populations often fail to prioritize the needs of local communities which are negatively affected by refugee influxes. That is because refugees often arrive and settle in remote and insecure border areas, which have little economic potential and are not of great concern to political and business elites in the capital city.

Over the years, some steps have been taken to overcome these constraints. UNHCR, for example, has provided limited and ad hoc forms of assistance to local communities in a number of countries. And in Pakistan (which has for many years had the world’s largest refugee population) UNHCR has worked closely with the UN Development Program (UNDP) to provide more ambitious forms of support to areas of the country that host large numbers of Afghan refugees. Elsewhere in the world, however, it has proven difficult to get such initiatives off the ground.

That situation may now be changing as a result of recent events in the Middle East.

In less than three years, more than two million Syrian refugees have escaped from the conflict in their homeland, with the largest number (approaching one million) fleeing to Lebanon and others going to Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt. Another million refugees are projected to enter those countries over the next 12 months.

This is a potentially explosive situation. In Lebanon, where no official camps have been established, tensions are growing between refugees and their local hosts. In one recent incident, the residents of a village in the east of the country forced hundreds of Syrian refugees to leave the site where they had settled, setting fire to their tents. Refugees International and other humanitarian organizations have warned that such incidents could escalate, posing a threat to refugee protection and to local stability.

Prompted by such concerns, a concerted effort is now being made to take the needs of host communities more seriously. The World Bank has recently completed a major study of the impact of refugees on Lebanese host communities - the first time that it has undertaken such an assessment - and a similar study of Jordan is near completion. UNHCR is also entering into an agreement that will enable UNDP to contribute to the task of supporting refugee-hosting countries in the region.

The next step will be to mobilize funds and implement practical projects on the ground. As a senior UNHCR staff member explained to me, “To avoid the kind of flash point that we have seen in Lebanon, we will have to provide host communities with very immediate and tangible forms of support.”

“Take waste management, for example,” he continued. “It might not be very glamorous, but if we can ensure that garbage is regularly removed from areas where large numbers of refugees are living, and if we can make sure that the local water supply is not polluted, then we might be able to stabilize the situation and encourage the Lebanese people to maintain the remarkable degree of generosity that they have shown to the refugees.”