Published on Development for Peace

What are the social dynamics between refugees and their Ethiopian hosts?

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Photo of an urban refugees resource center in Ethiopia Photo of an urban refugees resource center in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is the second largest refugee-hosting country in Africa, where conflicts – especially in the Horn of Africa region – are long standing and where many refugees contend with protracted periods of displacement. In fact, as of March this year, Ethiopia hosted just over 758,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers. Nearly all of these refugees come from South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan, and live in camps located in five regional states: Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, the Somali Regional State (or “Somali Region”), and Tigray.

To account for this new reality, Ethiopia is in the process of making far-reaching changes to its refugee policies, moving away from its existing encampment-based ones. In 2016, Ethiopia ‘pledged’ to allow greater mobility for refugees; improve access to services, especially education; expand access to livelihoods, jobs, and irrigable land; and facilitate the ‘local integration’ of long-term refugees. More recently in 2019, the country also adopted a new refugee proclamation, providing a legal basis for these pledges to be implemented.

But such proposed changes in a country’s social structure could have significant impacts on both host and refugee communities.

In Ethiopia, the categorization of an individual as a refugee or a host is complicated due to cross-border cultural and economic connections; common ties of kinship, language, and ethnicity; and relatively fluid attachments to national identity. In many places, the actual emergence of “host” communities was in fact, due to the arrival of refugees in prior years and related humanitarian operations, which created new opportunities for commerce and trade.

Conflict in refugee-hosting areas is often related to pre-existing tensions among various ethnic groups and/or among residents treated as “indigenous” and those perceived as migrants from the highlands. Refugees and hosts have generally positive relationships, but compete for basic services, natural resources, and economic opportunities, with most refugees being poorer than hosts.

What are the impacts of protracted displacement in Ethiopia and possible implications of the new refugee proclamation? A new report explores the complex interactions between refugee and host communities in Ethiopia’s socioeconomic and political context, which includes the developmental history of refugee-hosting regions as well as the history of relief operations and governmental responses.


Refugees and Refugee-Hosting Regions in Ethiopia (number and percentage of total, as of 30 March 2020)

A map of refugees and refugee-hosting regions in Ethiopia
Source: UNHCR’s “Operational Portal Ethiopia” at


Economic and Material Impacts: While the arrival of refugees (and associated relief operations) has generally been associated with the expansion of commercial activity and trade, there is still a paucity of reliable income-earning opportunities for both refugees and hosts. Refugees mainly rely on aid, petty trade, alcohol sale, and collection and sale of firewood to make a living. On the other hand, host communities depend on agriculture and wage employment.

While remittances, especially for urban refugees, have created demand for local businesses, some hosts argue that this has also caused increase in prices for goods, and increased consumption of alcohol and khat (a mild natural stimulant). The most visible impact of the refugee presence is on forests and natural habitats, since refugees have relied on wood for cooking and heating, in particular. Constrained refugee livelihoods have also led to competition over resources, localized insecurity and theft.


Environmental Degradation Between 2015–20 Around Nguenyyiel Refugee Camp, Gambella


Aerial shot of Nguenyyiel Refugee Camp, Gambella in 2015


Aerial shot of Nguenyyiel Refugee Camp, Gambella in 2020

Source: European Union/ESA/Copernicus.  


Social Impacts: Refugees and hosts share a positive relationship overall but with significant differences between groups. Repeated social and material exchanges foster relationships of trust: these include interactions while trading, at religious ceremonies or social occasions like weddings and funerals, sports events and while accessing shared social services. Intermarriage plays an important role in creating social connections between communities and can materially improve individuals’ access to livelihoods and services.

Gendered Impacts: Almost all the impacts of displacement, including access to services and livelihood strategies, vary by gender. Women are disproportionately affected by violence and insecurity, although gender-based violence affects women from host and refugee communities alike. Sometimes, the presence of refugees and relief operations is associated with improvement in access to services for women. In these areas, the activities of non-governmental and international organizations have helped increase community awareness about women’s rights, child marriage and early pregnancy.

Access to services: The presence of refugees is associated with overall improved access to services—especially education and health. Although none of the services provided to refugees—water, education and health—are fully integrated, hosts and refugees can, to varying degrees, access all three. However, perceived inequities in access to and quality of services can lead to localized tensions between groups.

As Ethiopia seeks to implement its key refugee pledges related to work and livelihoods (which includes access to land), increased provision of social and basic services, and local integration for long-term refugees, a tailored approach in the different refugee hosting areas is critical. Clear communication and consultations are vital in shaping inter-group dynamics between refugees and hosts and could inform a development program driven by community-based needs assessments.

By better understanding the evolution of the relationship between host and refugee communities in Ethiopia, the World Bank hopes that it can support hosting governments in enabling these groups to live empowered and dignified lives and also draw lessons for other parts of the world contending with similar challenges.

This report is based on research carried out in Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, and the Somali Regions and Addis Ababa.


Varalakshmi Vemuru

Practice Manager, Social Sustainability and Inclusion Global Practice, Europe and Central Asia

Aditya Sarkar

Independent Researcher and Consultant

Andrea Woodhouse

Senior Social Development Specialist

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