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How many years do refugees stay in exile?

Xavier Devictor's picture
"The average length of time that refugees spend in camps is 17 years." This cruel statistic has been quoted many times, influencing our perception of refugee crises as never-ending events which are spinning out of control. It has significant implications when deciding the type of aid that is needed, the combination of humanitarian and development support, and the possible responses to the crisis.

But is it true? Not so.

In fact, the "17 year" statistic comes from a 2004 internal UNHCR report, and it was accompanied by many caveats which have been lost along the way. The statistic does not refer to camps, since the overwhelming majority of refugees live outside camps. It is limited to situations of five years or more, so it is an average duration of the longest situations, not of all situations. Most importantly, it refers to the duration of situations, not to the time people have stayed in exile.

Take the situation of Somali refugees in Kenya. Refugees started to arrive massively around 1993, about 23 years ago. Their number now stands at 418,000. But can we say that all 418,000 have been in exile for 23 years?

In fact, forced displacement situations are inherently dynamic. As we see in Figure 1, numbers vary every year: they reflect political and military developments in the country of origin. In fact, a large part of the current total could not have arrived before 2008, i.e. about 6 or 7 years ago.
 
 

Figure 1 Number of Somali refugees in Kenya (UNHCR data)

Along these lines, and using data published by UNHCR as of end-2015, we re-calculated the earliest date at which various cohorts of refugees could have arrived in each situation (see working paper). We then aggregated all situations into a single "global refugee population" and calculated global averages and median durations.

So what are the results?

When we look at the "global refugee population" (See Figure 2), we can now distinguish several distinct episodes of displacement.
 


Figure 2 Number of refugees by year of exile

There is a large cohort of about 8.9 million "recent refugees," who arrived over the last four years. This includes about 4.8 million Syrians, as well as people fleeing from South Sudan (0.7 million), Afghanistan (0.3 million), Ukraine (0.3 million), the Central African Republic (0.3 million), and Pakistan (0.2 million).

Another large cohort, of about 2.2 million, has spent between 5 and 9 years in exile. It includes refugees from Afghanistan (0.5 million), the bulk of the current Somali refugees (0.4 million), and people fleeing from Colombia (0.3 million) and Myanmar (0.2 million).

About 2 million people have been in exile between 10 and 34 years. This includes years during which numbers are relatively low, and two episodes where they are higher, around 14 years ago, with the arrival of about 0.2 million Sudanese refugees, and around 24 and 25 years ago, with the arrival of about 0.1 million Somalis and 0.1 million Eritreans.

Lastly, a large group of refugees has been in exile for 35 to 37 years: these 2.2 million refugees include mainly Afghans, but also about 0.3 million ethnic Chinese who fled into China during the 1979 war with Vietnam. Finally, there are few very protracted situations, up to 55 years, including mainly Western Sahara.

We can now turn to average durations. As of end-2015, the median duration of exile stands at 4 years, i.e. half of the refugees worldwide have spent 4 years or less in exile. The median has fluctuated widely since the end of the Cold War, in 1991, between 4 and 14 years, and it is now at a historical low. By contrast, the mean duration stands at 10.3 years, and has been relatively stable since the late 1990s, between 10 and 15 years.

But this leads to another important finding: trends can be counter-intuitive. In fact, a decline in the average duration of exile is typically not an improvement, but rather the consequence of a degradation of the global situation. The averages increase in years when there are relatively few new refugees, and they drop when large numbers of people flow in, for example in 1993-1994 (with conflicts in Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda), in 1997-1999 (with conflicts in DRC and other parts of Africa), after 2003 (with conflict in Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan), and since 2013 (with the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic).

We also looked at the number of people who have spent more than five years in exile. As of end-2015, this number stands at 6.6 million, and it has been remarkably stable since 1991, at 5 to 7 million throughout most of the period.  For this group, however, the average duration of exile increases over time – largely because of the unresolved situation of Afghan refugees which pushes averages up. It is now well over 20 years.

This short analysis of UNHCR data shows that available refugee data can be used to clarify some important parts of the policy debate. It is important to ensure that this debate is informed by evidence, which can help provide a more nuanced perspective of a complex issue.

Experience from the Horn of Africa: Using area-based and inclusive planning to coordinate the humanitarian-development response to forced displacement

Varalakshmi Vemuru's picture

In the previous blog, we wrote about some essential features of a development response to forced displacement, which is the first question that we confronted in preparing a project to support the Horn of Africa (HOA) region address the impacts of protracted refugee presence.

We are just starting work on this Development Response to Displacement Impacts Project (DRDIP) in the HOA, informed by our understanding documented in the joint World Bank-UNHCR Forced Displacement and Mixed Migration report. As we move forward, we are gaining useful insights on coordinating the humanitarian-development response.
 
Among the countries of the HOA, which have been hosting refugees for a long time now, Ethiopia hosts the largest number of refugees. The refugees reside in 23 refugee camps located in the five National Regional States of Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambela, Tigrai, and Ethiopian Somali in 16 Woredas and 15 kebeles. The environmental impact of the refugee presence, stemming from fuelwood and construction timber needs, extends across 117 kebeles.

Project preparation took us to the Sherkole refugee camp in Benishangul-Gumuz and the Asaiyta refugee camp in Afar National Regional States. Through interactions with local host communities, refugees, woreda and kebele officials, Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA -- Government of Ethiopia’s refugee agency), and UNHCR field staff and local NGOs, we learned, for example, that both host and refugee communities wanted accessible secondary and high school education for their children; had to travel long distances, as much as 60 kilometers, if they needed a surgical intervention; and spent more time each day traveling to meet their fuel wood needs due to receding tree cover.

Classroom in Nakivale, Uganda (Photo: UNHCR)

However, discussions also revealed that the planning processes for the multi-agency refugee response (often led by ARRA and UNHCR in Ethiopia) and the development planning led by national and local government entities were essentially two separate processes – the former focusing primarily on refugees, and the latter on host communities. Both were functioning under a budget and capacity constraint.

The reality was that refugee children in Asaiyta who did not have access to high school in the camp attended the high school run by the government, and refugee women sought medical care at the local government hospital when the primary health centre was ill-equipped to address the problem.

For Sherkole, UNCHR was planning to establish a high school which could potentially support both refugees and host communities, as the existing high school was oversubscribed. But the conversation had not happened yet on how best to complement an existing high school so that both host and refugee children would be able to save time currently spent on walking to school and avoid the discomfort of sitting in congested classrooms.  

These realities led us to better focus on value for money of investments – efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability – and a potential tool for planning which could bring the government and UNHCR as well as NGOs that operate in these areas to exchange information and coordinate better their existing, ongoing and planned investments in service delivery.

Our experience in the Horn of Africa shows that area-based and inclusive planning has the following elements that would increase efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability:

  • Both hosts and refugees are participants in the planning process and enabled to share their priorities, challenges and proposals;
  • Break the silos of planning and consider the needs of both host and refugee communities while planning an intervention irrespective of who was initiating the intervention;
  • Given that government would be the long-term custodian of the infrastructure and services, it was critical that all facilities created in an administrative area are recorded on government books and budgetary provisions made by local governments for operations and maintenance with contributions also coming in from the UNHCR;
  • Service delivery norms for basic social services are adhered to in terms of population served, irrespective of how many were local and refugees, in deciding the level of service provision (health clinic, primary health centre, or hospital) based on what was already available; and
  • Ensuring parity in qualification and remuneration of staff to ensure both UNCHR and government facilities are staffed and functional.

Some may argue that area based and inclusive planning is not new and offers an opportunity for intersectoral planning focused upon spatial or locational investment decisions, and that this is key to designing solutions to address problems and achieve functional integration between sectors. However, translating this concept into practice on the ground is the challenge, which all stakeholders are likely to face in the displacement context given their individual mandates and narrow beneficiary focus.

The DRDIP preparation process has however convinced us of the commitment of all concerned to stay focused on the beneficiaries and their needs, ensuring value for money through optimum utilization of limited capacities and resources. Some of the regions e.g. Afar and Ethiopian Somali where the project will be implemented already have experience in an area based planning approach that has been developed and implemented under the World Bank financed Pastoral Community Development Project (PCDP). What is different is the context and the prevalent practice. A very encouraging beginning indeed and a long journey ahead.
 

Forced displacement: What can the development community contribute to supporting displaced persons and host communities?

Varalakshmi Vemuru's picture
Also available in: Español
Every day we are confronted with new images of people making a desperate bid to escape their living conditions and countries against treacherous and unforgiving odds. Globally, there is a number of situations that are contributing to this unprecedented movement of people, including:
  • Forced displacement due to war, conflict, and persecution;
  • Involuntary migration due to poverty, erosion of livelihoods, or climate change impacts that have destroyed and degraded life support systems; and/or even
  • Voluntary migration of indomitable spirits unable to reconcile with the status quo and seeking better social and economic opportunities.

To better understand forced displacement, I led a joint World Bank-UNHCR team that brought out the Forced Displacement and Mixed Migration Report for the Horn of Africa (HOA) – a region with an estimated 242 million inhabitants that includes eight countries (Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Uganda), which collectively host more than 9.5 million displaced persons, including more than 6.5 million internally displaced persons and approximately 3 million refugees.

How we’re fighting conflict and fragility where poverty is deepest

Sri Mulyani Indrawati's picture

View from cave, Mali. © Curt Carnemark/World Bank

For the first time in history, the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen below 10%. The world has never been as ambitious about development as it is today. After adopting the Sustainable Development Goals and signing the Paris climate deal at the end of 2015, the global community is now looking into the best and most effective ways of reaching these milestones. In this five-part series I will discuss what the World Bank Group is doing and what we are planning to do in key areas that are critical for ending poverty by 2030:
good governance, gender equality, conflict and fragility, creating jobs, and, finally, preventing and adapting to climate change.
 
By 2030, more than half of the world’s poorest people will live in very poor countries that are fragile, affected by conflict, or experience high levels of violence
 
These are places where governments cannot adequately provide even basic services and security, where economic activity is paralyzed and where development is the most difficult.  It is also where poverty is deepest. The problems these countries face don’t respect borders. About half of the world’s 20 million refugees are from poor countries. Many more are displaced within their own country.

Increasing data literacy to improve policy-making in Sudan

Sandra Moscoso's picture
Participants of data literacy program in Sudan. Photo: Sandra Moscoso

What do you do when facing a tough decision, like buying a home or selecting the right location for your new business? What about decisions that affect entire communities, or countries? How are those decisions made?
 
If you’re like most people, you rely on facts and advice from experts. You might look for data in studies, reports, or seek the advice of people you trust. You may also conduct a bit of critical analysis of the data you collect and the advice you receive. Ideally, policy-makers responsible for making decisions which impact our communities and our lives are collecting reliable data and conducting critical analysis, as well.

The future is in her hands

Bassam Sebti's picture


She is described as having strong ideas. A spirited and energetic girl who dreams of a big future, Shams helps children and encourages them to learn and play.

But Shams is not a real child. She is a Muppet and one of the most popular fictional characters in the children’s show Iftah Ya Simisim, the Arabic version of the popular, long-running US children’s show Sesame Street, which was introduced in the Arab world in the 1980s.

The War is Over. What Do We Do Now? Post-Conflict Recovery of the Private Sector in South Sudan

Steve Utterwulghe's picture


The White Nile in South Sudan. Photo by Steve Utterwulghe.

As I was landing in Juba, the bustling capital of South Sudan, I couldn’t help but reminisce about my days working in Khartoum for the UN Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General. The war between the North and the South, of what was then, in 2004, still the Sudan, was raging as the peace negotiations were taking place in a plush resort on the shores of Lake Naivasha in Kenya. I was mainly focusing on guaranteeing access to the people of the Nuba Mountains, one of the three fiercely contested areas between Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/SPLA). I was doing my fair share of shuttle diplomacy, going back and forth between the SPLM/SPLA leadership based in Nairobi and the Government of Sudan in Khartoum. At that time, hopes were high that one would soon see the end of decades of a bloody war in Africa’s largest country. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement was finally signed in 2005. In 2011, South Sudanese participated in a referendum and 99 percent voted for independence. South Sudan became the newest country in the world.
 
But what should have been a new era of peace and prosperity quickly turned into a feeling of dejà vu. Dreams were shattered as a new internal violent conflict broke out in December 2013, putting the progress achieved at significant risk and disrupting economic activities and livelihoods.
 
The country is very rich in natural resources, including oil, minerals and fertile arable land. However, with 90 percent of its population earning less than US$1 per day, South Sudan is ranked as one of the poorest countries on the planet. South Sudan remains an undeveloped economy facing important challenges, including high unemployment, weak institutions, illiteracy and political instability. The economic overview of the country by the World Bank suggests that “South Sudan is the most oil-dependent country in the world, with oil accounting for almost the totality of exports, and around 60 percent of its gross domestic product.” The conflict has dramatically affected the production of oil, which has fallen by about 20 percent and is now at about 165,000 barrels per day. This, combined with the sharp global drop in oil prices, has greatly affected the fiscal position of the government.

In such an environment, private sector development is a must, since it has the potential to create market-led jobs and growth. However, private sector growth requires a conducive investment climate and an enabling business environment.
 
South Sudan has made progress in this area, thanks in part to support from the international community, including the World Bank Group. Yet more needs to be done. South Sudan ranks 187th out of the 189 economies in the Doing Business ranking, just ahead of Libya and Eritrea. In addition, among the top constraints reported by firms in the World Bank Group's Enterprise Survey, 68 percent mention political instability and 58 percent cite access to electricity, followed closely by access to land and finance. 

Part of the #Youthbiz movement? Share your story!

Valerie Lorena's picture

Also available in: Français | العربية
 



A boat trip from Port Elizabeth to Kingstown, in the Caribbean country of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, is a one-hour trip that locals take several times a day. It was during one of these journeys that the boat of Kamara Jerome, a young Vincentian fisherman, ran out of gas six miles from Bequia City in what is termed locally as the "Bequia Channel." While waiting for help with strong wind gusts and the sun on his head, the idea of developing a boat that would run with wind and solar energy was born. Soon after, the idea became a prototype; a boat using green technology was on the water making 20-year-old Jerome a winner of international innovation competitions and a role model to other Caribbean youth. 
 
In Mexico, young engineer Daniel Gomez runs a multimillion bio-diesel company originally conceived as a research project for his high school chemistry class. Gomez and his partners - Guillermo Colunga, Antonio Lopez, and Mauricio Pareja - founded SOLBEN (Solutions in bio-energy in Spanish) in their early twenties. 
 
Although Daniel and Kamara have different educational backgrounds, they do share one important skill, the ability to identify a problem, develop an innovative solution, and take it to the market. In other words, being an entrepreneur, an alternative to be economically active, that seems to work and not only for a few.

Always Regulated, Never Protected: How Markets Work

Richard Mallett's picture

If you’re not already interested in livelihoods, you should be. Because livelihoods are the bottom line of development. Millions are spent on trying to build more effective states around the world, but development isn’t really about state capacity. At the end of those long causal chains and theories of change, there’s a person – an average Jo (sephine), a ‘little guy’. Making things work a little better for that person, making it easier for them to make their own choices and carve out a decent living…that is the why of development.

Structural change, from Khartoum to D.C.

Ivan Rossignol's picture
Once again, we’re approaching the Annual Meetings of the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund. As they do every year at this time, Africa’s Ministers of Finance and Central Bank Governors (“the Africa Caucus”) met in Khartoum on September 4, in part to preface the discussions they will have with the World Bank Group’s President.
 

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