Published on Africa Can End Poverty

How skilled are refugees in Ethiopia?

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Ethiopia has been suffering from multiple refugee crises – some more protracted, some more recent – that put a strain on coping capacity of national and local authorities. A new World Bank survey and report inform policies on durable solutions for the displaced populations through an evidence-based approach.

Displacement situations in Ethiopia resulted from a combination of protracted conflicts in neighboring countries (Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan), more recent crises (South Sudan, Yemen), and endemic internal ethnic unrest in some peripheral regions (Oromia, Somali/Ogaden, Afar). As a result of these regional and domestic conflicts, Ethiopia has been one of the most important refugee hosting countries for decades.

There are four main Ethiopian regions that host refugees, each of whom hosts a specific group and has a unique ethnic composition: Tigray and Afar (hosting Eritreans), Gambella (hosting South Sudanese), Benishangul Gumuz (hosting mostly Sudanese, but also South Sudanese), and Somali (Somalis). Thus, the displacement contexts are remarkably diverse: the regions hosting refugees are all peripheral and relatively underserved. Eritreans, Somalis, South Sudanese and Sudanese were displaced due to different drivers related to conflict and fragility, and each group is integrated to different degrees within Ethiopian economy and host communities.

Refugees mostly live in camps that are separated from the social and economic life of host communities and are mostly dependent on aid, which is the main source of livelihood for them. In 2016, the Government of Ethiopia articulated a strategic approach in a series of pledges aimed at improving rights and expanding services to benefit both refugees and host communities. The nine pledges include potential provisions to ease the refugees’ restrictions in matters of freedom of movement, labor rights, and access to services, livelihoods and resources.

The analysis of the survey found that not only refugees witnessed trauma and life disruption (e.g. family separation) and incurred into material loss during displacement (i.e. land, livestock, and assets), but also their standard of living, livelihood and access to services’ prospects are currently highly dependent on aid. Uncertainty and inability to plan for the future represent the common denominator among refugees, which is the reason why a conducive legal framework and related policies to enable refugees’ self-reliance are key.

Figure03 Africacan

Predictably, refugees are worse off in terms of standard of living compared to host communities, although they have comparable access to services. In fact, according to nationality, refugees fare differently with respect to standard of living, livelihood and employment, and ties to host communities. Among refugee groups, Eritreans are the ones that enjoy more rights compared to others, and, as a result, display higher standard of living and much lower poverty rates.

On the other hand, South Sudanese are the poorest group on many indicators, including food security, housing, labor force participation, and ties to host community. More concerning, indicators on livelihood and access to services highlight the nearly complete dependence of refugees from aid. Many of the findings directly feed into the need to support policies of job creation, enhanced and sustainable access to markets and services, and conducive regulatory environment and governance, among others. Virtuous practices – that organically take into consideration refugees as well as host communities – are functional to economic self-reliance and to move away from dependency on external sources of aid.


Utz Pape

Lead Economist, Poverty and Equity Global Practice

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