New approaches to urban refugee livelihoods


By Dale Buscher, Senior Programme Director, Women’s Refugee Commission

As the growth in urban refugee numbers far out-strips a parallel growth in humanitarian financial assistance and as the average length of displacement is now 17 years, feeding and providing direct services to these populations is no longer a viable option. Their ability to provide for themselves not only enhances their protection by reducing, for example their need to trade sex for food, but, allows urban refugees to address their own needs without substantive further assistance from the humanitarian community.

Not only could economic opportunities restore some of the refugees’ dignity, allowing them to make decisions about their expenditures and choices, promoting these opportunities would also allow humanitarian assistance to be used more effectively and sustainably—supporting local economic development or improving government health and education facilities rather than utilizing donor dollars to support food aid and refugee subsistence allowance.

This model was tried in the Burundian refugee settlements in rural Tanzania in the 1960’s and 70’s to considerable success. Refugees were allowed to self-settle and humanitarian assistance was used to build and rehabilitate roads, schools, and health clinics in the impacted region directly benefitting both the refugee and host communities rather than using the funds for direct refugee assistance. When host governments see direct benefits  for them and their citizens, they are more likely to allow refugees to fully access their labor markets and their public services.

Understandably, in spite of obligations signed onto for those who have ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, most host governments are reluctant to allow refugees to work. They fear competition and worry that with jobs and income, refugees will de facto locally integrate, never to return to their countries of origin. While these concerns are valid, it is also true that refugees with cash in pocket and marketable skills are more likely to return home when such return is safe. This has been demonstrated repeatedly, Albanian Kosovars rushing back to Kosovo to repair their homes, the most highly skilled Southern Sudanese returning from the Kakuma camp in Kenya first because they knew they could find jobs, and the Liberians returning from Guinea to teach, farm, and reclaim homes and properties in Monrovia. Often the residual refugee caseloads aren’t those who found ways to make money; but, rather those who did not, that is, those who had no resources to return with and no new skills that would make them marketable upon return an example being the residual caseload of Liberians residing in the Buduburam camp in Ghana.

Seldom are the refugees in urban areas viewed as potential assets who could contribute to economic stimulation and growth—filling both skilled and unskilled labor shortages and bringing in new skills and talents. For the most part, those who are making it in the city are doing so not because of any humanitarian assistance provided but rather in spite of the lack of assistance given. Refugees who migrate to urban areas tend, on the whole, to be more highly educated and more resourceful. In Kampala, for example, a study found that most of the urban refugees are educated urbanites—70% of the sample interviewed had either finished or been attending secondary education prior to flight and 30% had a college or university qualification. Many were academics, researchers, engineers, teachers and musicians. Self-selection often brings the most entrepreneurial and educated to the cities. There they build and rely on their social networks for support. They quickly learn and tap into all available services and programs. They advocate for themselves and are often relentless in seeking opportunities.

Creating economic opportunities for refugees in urban areas is a challenging and complex undertaking. Advocating for and influencing host government policy for recognition of refugee rights in policy and practice is a requisite first step; identifying market opportunities and constraints and refugees’ economic coping strategies in response to those opportunities and constraints is the vital subsequent step.

The field assessments carried out by the Women’s Refugee Commission highlighted the importance of human, financial and especially social assets in urban refugees’ livelihoods. Social networks not only assisted with access to housing and jobs but were a vital source of information about services and opportunities. Social networks also helped mitigate risks faced by refugees in these environments.  There is a need to recognize and support the vital role that these social networks play in urban refugees’ protection and survival – such as through supporting indigenous refugee mutual assistance organizations, capacitating informal refugee savings and loan mechanisms, working with and through refugee religious institutions, women’s groups, leadership structures and youth clubs.

Building human assets necessitates assisting refugees’ access educational and training opportunities. Identifying and focusing on which local vocational training programs serving host country nationals have job placement components and the best post-training employment records, for example, and how these programs can be capacitated to serve the refugee population. Identification of and facilitating access to existing business development services could build refugees’ financial literacy and entrepreneurial skills.

Building financial capital requires assisting refugees access salaries, income, credit, and safe places to save. Assessing, for example, whether existing micro-finance institutions could be convinced to provide loans, safe places to save, and micro-insurance to the refugee population and what support this might require. Rather than creating parallel programs and services, focus should be on assisting refugees’ access existing services including those targeting the urban poor. Existing services have track records and understand the socio-economic context and local markets. This entails mapping current service providers for vocational training, business development services, job placement programs and micro-finance institutions and facilitating access for urban refugee populations. This may require further capacitating through technical or funding support and it may require modifications in program models and approaches. Microfinance institutions (MFIs), for example, exist in virtually every refugee-impacted urban area serving the host country’s poor who face the same challenges and reside in the same neighborhoods as the urban refugees. MFIs have a myriad of products—savings, consumer loans, household loans, business loans and micro-insurance that can be tailored to the unique needs of the refugee population. An interview with the director of BRAC in Kampala, for example, indicated that they are willing and ready to extend their services to the refugee population.

While economic programming in urban environments is complex and local markets and opportunities are often limited, starting with and building on what exists both within the refugee populations and with the local economic service providers would facilitate better practice and ultimately should lead to better outcomes.


This is a shorten version of the article “New Approaches to Urban Refugee Livelihoods” published in Refuge, Volume 26, n 2, 2011, available here

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