World Refugee Day: Putting Host Communities Center Stage

By Joel Charny

In the world of refugees and internally displaced people, host communities tend to be nearly invisible. They are the backdrop to the core drama of refugee protection, part of the scenery. Or perhaps a source of cheap labor for the manual and clerical tasks that undergird camp operations.

On the occasion of World Refugee Day, however, let's attempt to put host communities on center stage where they belong.

Tensions between refugees and host communities are inevitable. The political instability and conflict that create refugee flows often ripple across borders, affecting security and development prospects in the nearby regions of neighboring states. It is rare for refugees to flee from chaos and abject poverty on one side of the border into an area of tranquility and wealth on the other. Members of the host communities may be as poor as the refugees, struggling to survive in resource-deprived areas neglected by the central government. Examples of this dynamic include the massive Afghan refugee flow into Pakistan in the 1980s; the Somali refugee flow into Dadaab in Kenya; and the Darfuri exodus into eastern Chad.

In this context, aid to refugees - the food, the clean water, the latrines, the clinics, the schools - becomes an affront to people facing different but equivalent challenges to their survival and well-being. When the best hospital in the region is in the refugee camp - as it is in Dadaab - fundamental issues of equity arise.

The economic impact of refugees is more complicated. Host countries generally do not allow refugees to work, so the only labor market competition with local people is in the underground economy or the informal sector. Further, the aid operation itself brings badly needed resources into host communities through local purchasing, hiring of local staff, and the expenditures of relief workers. Refugee hosting communities sometimes see a small-scale economic boom, though the resources normally accrue to wealthy people who already have the capital to respond to the opportunity, such as the Thai businessmen who made a killing off the Cambodia relief operation in the 80s.

Refugee populations put an intense strain on the local environment, however. Refugee hosting communities may be miles from the nearest town, and the largest settlement may have fewer than 10,000 people. Establishing a camp or set of camps in such an area is the equivalent of introducing a city overnight into a rural environment. Demands for water and firewood are especially intense, and the exploitation of local resources for the refugees creates resentment, especially when the context of is one of general neglect and underdevelopment.


In cases of internal displacement, understanding and working within the dynamic of the host communities are even more imperative. Pakistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, and Colombia are all examples of countries where people displaced internally find shelter and support primarily in host communities. Compared to refugees crossing a border, there is less resentment of the internally displaced as fundamentally alien. Local solidarity is strong, as the displaced often share ethnic, religious, and socio-economic ties with their hosts.

But this doesn't lessen the economic burden, which can be tremendous. Reports from the current massive displacement crisis in Pakistan indicate that families may be hosting as many as 20 or 25 displaced people based on intra-tribal Pashtun norms in a very traditional society. In the eastern Congo, people have been constantly on the move for years, shifting from village to village, safe place to safe place, finding shelter and hospitality where they can. In these and other cases, the challenge for aid agencies is first and foremost to locate and identify the most vulnerable people, and then devise a strategy for reaching them with needed assistance that does not depend on large numbers of people being in fixed camps. The reality, however, is that host families may be as vulnerable as the displaced in such situations.

In refugee situations, aid agencies must be sensitive to the needs of the host community, and in fact there is wide recognition of the importance of the issue. The problem is more on the donor side, as governments tend to have separate funding streams for refugee work (interpreted as supporting material assistance and protection programs in camp settings) and development (supporting environmental protection and livelihood projects in poor communities). This leads to a lack of overall coherence, with the effect of leaving the agencies most acutely aware of the problems of host communities without the resources to address them in any meaningful way.


Further, if the host government itself has no interest in developing a particular region, donors tend to accept this reality. Are development donors lobbying the Kenyan government to work with host communities in Dadaab? The answer is no, leaving the refugees and the host communities in an increasingly bitter struggle in one of the poorest parts of the country.

As for communities hosting internally displaced people, a holistic approach is the only effective way to respond. In such cases, the agencies themselves need to develop different ways of working. In Pakistan, creative responses are emerging, such as cash grants both to the displaced and to host families and the establishment of numerous decentralized food distribution points. In the Congo, however, the thinking tends to be more traditional, and opportunities to work at the community level in ways that include both the displaced and host families have been missed. In an ever-changing environment for displaced people in places like the Congo and Colombia, establishing camps simply won't work. Combining emergency assistance with support for community needs such as schools and health posts is the only realistic strategy.

Host communities - their needs and their burdens - must be considered an integral part of any effective response to the needs of refugees and internally displaced people. Wider recognition of this reality and commitment to addressing the serious gaps by international agencies and donor governments would be welcome in honor of this year's World Refugee Day.