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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.

Are progressive refugee laws sufficient to ensure self-reliance for refugees? Insights from Uganda

Varalakshmi Vemuru's picture
Uganda’s refugee laws are among the most progressive in the world. As the third largest host country in Africa with over 568,000 refugees, Uganda’s approach of giving refugees the right to work, freedom of movement and access to social services among others, has allowed refugees to positively contribute to their own and Uganda’s economic and social development. To understand better the economic impacts of these progressive policies, the World Bank along with UNHCR and Government of Uganda undertook a study on Uganda’s Progressive Approach to Refugee Management
 
We observed that over 78 percent of refugees in rural settlements, where they receive agricultural land, are engaged in agricultural activities compared to 5 percent in urban areas. Crop surpluses attract Ugandan traders to the refugee settlements, operating as a direct supply chain for sale of agriculture produce but also supply of agriculture inputs like fertilizers and seeds.
 
Refugee farmer in Nakivale settlement area, Uganda   (Photo: UNHCR)


However, about 66 percent of respondents reported that local traders use faulty scales when weighing produce, which shortchanges them. Seventy percent decried the extremely low prices offered by local traders for produce, with implications for the ability and timing of refugees to become self-reliant. This was made worse by the significant losses in quality and quantity of agriculture produce due to poor harvest handling techniques and inadequate storage facilities, and surpluses were sold immediately after harvest at the lowest point in the price cycle. This shows that while refugees have land to cultivate, they are unable to realize the potential due to lack of technical, infrastructural and marketing support, contributing to food insecurity and under nutrition among smallholder farming refugee families, especially during lean seasons.
 
Business enterprises such as bars, hair dressing, milling, transportation, money transfers, and retail are run by refugees. Twenty-eight percent of female refugees are involved in agriculture, trade, or are self-employed; their participation in the formal sector is low—only 9 percent. Initiatives such as Community Savings Groups and women savings and credit groups have provided female refugees with seed money to start businesses. There is reportedly some level of gender discrimination with respect to access to land, credit, employment, and self-employment opportunities.  
 
We observed that almost 43 percent of the refugees are actively engaged in the labor market of their host communities: 12 percent in the formal sector and 31 percent self-employed. However, refugees expressed constraints accessing formal employment both in urban areas and rural settlements, relating to unfamiliarity with the language, legal issues, poor interview skills, discrimination, and a lack of relevant documents. Refugees are mainly engaged in occupations that provide little income, social protection, or job security.
 
Refugee settlement areas have attracted the attention of Ugandan private enterprises, such as the Ugandan telecom companies, which launched several initiatives aimed at targeting refugee users of SMS banking and transfer services. For example, Orange Uganda Limited, a provider of telecommunication and Internet services in Uganda, invested in a large radio tower in the Nakivale settlement to promote its "Orange money" services. In Rwamwanja and Adjumani, a number of refugees operate as mobile money unit agents providing employment for them, while facilitating other refugees in accessing remittances from their relatives and friends within or outside the country. This mobile money is hugely helpful to refugees trying to meet expenses, including school fees for their children.
 
But in Uganda, and across the rest of the Horn of Africa, refugee camps and settlements are located in areas where the host communities are among the most underserved, with significant development deficits of their own. The majority of refugee settlements in Uganda are in the relatively stable north, though it has communities still in a state of latent conflict, driven by new and long-standing grievances, poverty, perception of marginalization, competition over national resources, and societal fracture as legacies of decades of violent conflict. The region also has high levels of poverty and youth unemployment which poses challenges to refugee efforts at self-reliance.
 
This got us thinking about a couple of important questions: "Are progressive refugee laws and policies sufficient to ensure self-reliance for refugees? What insights does this provide to the range of organizations including UNHCR and NGOs engaged in advocacy efforts aimed at more progressive refugee laws and policies?"
 
We believe that progressive refugee laws that guarantee freedom of movement and right to work and own property are critical for economic self-reliance of refugees, without which it would be an impossibility. However, the Ugandan experience also tells us that while refugees have engaged in economic activities and employment, they haven’t all achieved self-reliance and many remain aid dependent. For us an important learning is that only when progressive refugee laws are complemented by significant developmental investments in the host communities can refugees have a real shot at self-reliance, benefitting from the attendant reduction in poverty, increase in quality of basic services, better infrastructure and economic opportunities.
 
We see a huge opportunity in Uganda with the recent government-led efforts to address the development challenges of settlements that are home to locals and refugees with the inclusion of the Settlement Transformative Agenda (STA) as part of National Development Plan II (NDP II 2015/16–2019/20). The STA aims to promote social and economic development in the refugee hosting areas for both locals and refugee communities in partnership with the UN agencies in Uganda, the World Bank and other stakeholders. The World Bank is supporting this effort through the Development Response to Displacement Impacts Project (DRDIP) in Uganda, which will help improve access to basic social services, expand economic opportunities, and enhance environmental management for communities hosting refugees in Adjumani, Arua, Isingiro and Kyriandongo districts.
 

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.