COVID-19 has made refugee inclusion in national development plans, public services and the formal labor market ever more important. This pandemic will undoubtedly have a disproportionate impact on refugees, who often live in places where it is difficult or impossible to practice social distancing and who are often barred from accessing government healthcare and safety nets. But refugees must be included in national COVID-19 health responses for everyone in the community to be safe. And refugees will need to be included in immediate and long-term socioeconomic responses for local economies to recover.
With this context, the World Bank’s Refugee Policy Review Framework could not come soon enough. This new tool will offer a systematic review of refugee policies and institutional environments in countries eligible for the Bank’s financing for low-income refugee hosting countries – the IDA Window for Hosts Communities and Refugees (WHR). Notably, the IDA Deputies – who recognized that this financing ‘provides a critical entry point that can catalyze legislative and policy shifts’ and that ‘analytical work can offer a useful entry point for policy dialogue with governments – requested the Framework be developed.
The World Bank will use this Framework to support policy dialogue with host governments, building on the successes experienced with the $2 billion IDA18 Refugee Sub-window (RSW). With financial support through the RSW, Ethiopia introduced a new Refugee Proclamation, which creates a path for refugees to move freely outside of camps, attend primary school and access jobs. Pakistan now allows refugees to open bank accounts. And Chad has established its first-ever national refugee policy that reflects the 1951 Convention. While in many cases there are significant gaps and lags in implementation, these policy advances, which are creating development opportunities for refugee and host communities, are particularly notable as many countries roll back refugee protection policies.
The RPRF could help drive progress in how the international community and national governments think about responding to large refugee flows, putting policies – the backbone of sustainable change – at the center of the response. As we have written in the past (here and here), a tool like the RPRF has a number of important uses and benefits, not only for Bank-Government dialogue, but also for the wider community responding to refugee crises. Notably, the RPRF will be a review, not an index. We hope this will help avoid a “race to the bottom”, whereby countries perceive political benefits from more restrictive refugee laws, as well as avoid pitfalls associated with the Doing Business index.
The RPRF will be the first (to our knowledge) systematic review of refugee policies across multiple dimensions, including the regulatory environment, economic opportunities, access to national public services, gender, and policies that impact the host community. And is something, frankly, few institutions besides the World Bank could pull off in a systematic and rigorous manner. The data collected and analyzed will be useful for better understanding the policy barriers that refugees face and the reforms that could further realize their rights and opportunities. In addition, analyzing policies and their implementation across a range of host countries will allow countries to learn from each other’s successes and challenges. If for instance, a country wants to enact a new refugee law, it can turn to Ethiopia or Chad for guidance. But to reap these benefits, the World Bank will need to make the data and analysis transparent and open.
The RPRF can also enable mutual accountability and align development and humanitarian actors in refugee contexts behind a common agenda—something that still too often remains elusive but is at the heart of finding solutions to protracted displacement. While coordination between the World Bank and UNHCR has improved over the past few years, the RPRF – and UNHCR’s involvement in it – can help put both institutions on the same page about what policy are reforms needed to unlock opportunities and self-reliance for refugees. Civil society actors can also align themselves with this agenda and hold governments and donors accountable for progress. This approach would improve upon the traditional way of working, whereby development and humanitarian actors make separate – and sometimes contradicting – asks of host governments, potentially stalling progress.
We have generally been pleased with the direction of the RPRF, as well as the World Bank’s consultation with civil society—at least in Washington, DC and Geneva. But as the World Bank finalizes and pilots the Framework, we will keep a close watch on a few elements critical to success: (1) that there is a rigorous evaluation of progress in policy reforms with an eye on implementation; (2) data and analysis transparency to enable mutual accountability for progress; and (3) continued collaboration with civil society not only at headquarters but also at local levels to ensure data collection and conclusions reflect the refugees’ lived experiences. Finally, we will watch for how the RPRF ultimately shapes WHR financing decisions—such as whether countries that improve their policies have access to more and better financing arrangements, or whether there is a penalty for countries that fail to make reforms.