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Changing the way we think about refugees

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Credit: commissioned for the 2023 World Development Report. © World Bank Group/Paul Blake Credit: commissioned for the 2023 World Development Report. © World Bank Group/Paul Blake

The scenes we’ve seen over the last years – of people fleeing from Syria, Venezuela, Myanmar, Ukraine, or South Sudan – are a stark reminder of importance of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its core principle that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. Refugee crises are a tragedy for those forced to flee and they often raise difficult challenges for the countries who receive them. This World Refugee Day gives us an opportunity to reflect on what works and what doesn’t to best support refugees and host countries in a world often suffering persistent conflict, violence, and persecution.  As we found in the World Bank’s World Development Report 2023: Migrants, Refugees, and Societies, much more can be done.

To start, we need to change the way we think about refugees.

Refugees are often associated with short-term humanitarian emergencies, camps, and food aid. But this is mistaken - most refugee situations are lasting.  Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, the median refugee had spent 13 years in exile. In Peshawar, Pakistan one sees many people who fled from Afghanistan in 1979, and their children, and their grandchildren. Dealing with such situations through emergency relief programs is akin to treating chronic medical situations in the emergency room: it is expensive and not very effective. We need to shift the paradigm, and to take a medium-term perspective from the start.

We also need to bring some economics into the conversation. When refugees bring skills that are in demand in their host country – think about Albert Einstein – the benefits are clear and policymaking tends to be relatively simple. But some refugees do not bring such skills: over 40 percent of all refugees are children. Hosting them is still an obligation under international law, but it can come at a cost. So the question is: how to manage this cost?

Share the cost

Most refugees move to the first safe place they can reach.  As a result, a relatively small number of countries – those that are bordering the countries of origin – host an overwhelming share of all refugees. And many of these countries are facing their own development challenges: over three-quarters of refugees are hosted in low- and middle-income countries. This is why international discussions have long focused on the need for a fairer sharing of responsibilities.

Much remains to be done. Two-thirds of all bilateral financing is providing by just three donors. And three-quarter of all resettlements – the formal reinstallation of refugees in another country – are taking place in just four countries: Canada, Germany, Sweden, and the United States. Only 114,300 refugees were resettled in 2022, compared to the more than 2 million who will need to be in 2023, according to UNHCR. 

To change this, development actors - including multilateral organizations like the World Bank - can help fill this gap. Since 2017, the World Bank has provided nearly $4 billion to finance about 75 projects in more than 20 low- and middle-income host countries to help respond in a sustainable manner. At a time when the international community is fractured, regional solidarity has become critical  – as demonstrated by the Latin American response to the Venezuelan crisis, by the European response to the Ukraine invasion, or by the efforts of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in East Africa.

Reduce the cost

A key challenge is to find ways to provide effective international protection in the most cost-effective manner. This is not about reducing the “standards” of international protection, but about adopting hosting policies that can be sustained over time, both financially and socially.

There are three main ways to do this.

The first is to put an end to the enforced idleness common in refugee camps and to allow refugees to work. This makes it possible for refugees to contribute to the economy, and it reduces their need for assistance. It also helps refugees maintain, or further enhance their skills, and save. Evidence shows that both skills and savings are critical for them to eventually be able to return to their country of origin and re-establish their life there. It is about the right to work – without having to wait for many months, but also about a number of complementary rights like opening a bank account and getting a drivers’ license. 

The second is to include refugees in national systems for service delivery like education and health. Educating refugee children is critical to prevent the emergence of a disenfranchised and marginalized generation.  And the COVID pandemic has shown the importance of including all in public health programs. Such services, however, are sometimes delivered through ad hoc structures that run parallel to the national education or health systems. From a financial perspective, this is often costly and inefficient. From a social perspective, it can create perceptions of unfairness among host communities. Inclusion in national system is a much better route, but it also requires international support and financing.

The third – and most critical – is to let refugees move across the host country: to allow them to go to places where there are jobs, rather than to concentrate them in refugee camps. This reduces the impact on the communities in the areas where refugees first arrive, and it increases the possibility for them to contribute to the economy.

The good news is that there are examples of these approaches working. Colombia, which hosts around 2.8 million Venezuelans, has adopted a medium-term framework that provides Venezuelans with a ten-year status, opportunities to work, and access to national systems.  This is proving beneficial to both the Venezuelans and Colombia itself.

As we mark yet another World Refugees Day with increased numbers of forcibly displaced people, we can learn from such experiences to enhance the international responses. The Global Refugee Forum in December provides a unique opportunity to rethink the global response to refugee crises, build on these good examples, and get to the next level to better serve refugees, the countries that host them and the global community.  



Xavier Devictor

Co-Director, World Development Report 2023

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