Refugee Settlement and Self-Reliance: New Challenges for UNHCR

For a long period of time – roughly from the late 1970s until the early 2000s – UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, reached an agreement with many developing countries whereby refugees were confined to camps. Refugees were unable to exercise freedom of movement and were also denied access to land, capital, and the labor market. Unable to establish livelihoods and become self-reliant, they had no choice but to depend on what became known as ‘care and maintenance’ assistance programs. According to UNHCR, such arrangements were the price that had to be paid if developing countries were to open their borders to refugees and allow them to remain on their territory. 

From the early 2000s onwards, this approach to refugee settlement became increasingly untenable. The world’s developing countries were urbanizing at a rapid rate and refugees were not immune to this trend. Increasingly, they were ignoring the restrictions placed upon them by moving out of their camps or bypassing them entirely, preferring to take up residence in cities where they felt they could live a more normal life and find work in the informal economy.

At the same time, camps were coming under growing scrutiny. NGOs and human rights organizations were increasingly critical of situations in which refugees were ‘warehoused’ for years on end, without any prospect of finding a solution to their plight. Appointed in 2005, a new UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, quickly grasped – and decided to resolve – the contradiction of heading a humanitarian organization that was at times party to violations of some basic human rights.   

UNHCR’s evolving approach to refugee settlement was also influenced by the fact that in two major refugee emergencies, those involving Iraq and Syria, neighboring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon did not insist on the encampment of the new arrivals and allowed many of them to take up residence amongst and alongside the host population.

In terms of policy, UNHCR has come a long way in a short time. But what challenges is the organization likely to face as it tries to implement its new approach to settlement and self-reliance?

Responding to these developments, UNHCR has in recent years introduced new refugee settlement and self-reliance policies which are in sharp contrast to the organization’s earlier approach. In the words of these documents, UNHCR now “considers urban areas to be a legitimate place for refugees to enjoy their rights… whether or not this is approved by the authorities.” Refugee camps, the organization acknowledges, “limit the rights and freedoms of refugees” and “result in a range of protection problems and pathologies, including aid dependency and isolation.”  UNHCR is consequently committed “to pursue alternatives to camps whenever possible” and “to maximize opportunities for both refugee and host populations to establish, maintain and enhance livelihoods activities.”  

In terms of policy, UNHCR has come a long way in a short time. But what challenges is the organization likely to face as it tries to implement its new approach to settlement and self-reliance?

First and most obviously, UNHCR will have to secure the support of host states. And that will not be an easy task, given the continued determination of some governments to ensure that refugees are accommodated in camps and go back to their own country at the earliest possible opportunity, rather than allowing them to integrate in the local economy and society. To persuade them otherwise, some effective advocacy will be required, supported by evidence demonstrating that refugees can make a useful contribution to their adopted country when they are allowed to live outside of camps and live productive lives.  

Second, UNHCR’s new approach is unlikely to be accepted by host communities unless they know that the international community will enable them to cope with refugee influxes by supporting their economy, strengthening their infrastructure, and protecting their environment.

At the same time, there will be a need for the international community to show that the presence of a refugee population creates new livelihoods opportunities for local people, rather than squeezing them out of the labor market or diminishing their wages. Those objectives will only be achieved if development agencies, financial institutions, and the private sector can play a much more prominent role in the refugee response, thereby allowing UNHCR and its humanitarian partners to phase out their assistance programs once the emergency is over.  

A third challenge concerns the attitudes of refugees themselves. Is it right to think that they are invariably opposed to the establishment of camps? Can camps serve a useful purpose in meeting the basic needs of vulnerable refugees who are unable to support themselves? And are there parts of the world where host communities are so poor, markets are so weak, and development opportunities so limited that refugees will feel that it is impossible for them to survive outside of a camp and manage without the services it provides?

Finally, developing countries may be hesitant to provide refugees with the greater freedoms and opportunities associated with UNHCR’s new approach unless they feel that the world’s more prosperous regions are taking their fair share of responsibility for the world’s refugees. At the moment, that does not seem to be the case.

The industrialized states are prepared to provide the resources required for refugee assistance programs in the developing world, and are ready to admit a small proportion of the world’s refugees by means of organized resettlement programs. But they appear determined to uphold the current distribution of the global refugee population, more than 85 percent of whom are to be found in poorer countries.   

The European Union, for example, has recently formulated a plan to “identify, seize and destroy” Libyan boats, in order to stop people from war-torn countries such as Somalia and Syria from crossing the Mediterranean. Australia is blockading its coastline and sending the refugees and asylum seekers that it apprehends to poverty-stricken countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia, Nauru, and Papua New Guinea. Confronted with these restrictive practices, developing countries may prove reluctant to cooperate in the implementation of UNHCR’s new and more progressive approach to refugee settlement and self-reliance.

Banner image: Reuters photo.