Published on Voices

We need to change the way we support refugees – now !

This page in:
N'Djamena, Chad - UN Refugee Camp in Africa. Credit: Shutterstock. N'Djamena, Chad - UN Refugee Camp in Africa. Credit: Shutterstock.

On a recent joint visit to Adré, a town in Eastern Chad at the border with Sudan—on an arid land where nothing seems to grow except tents set up by UNHCR—we witnessed tragedy and hope. Tragedy because of the horrific tales from recently arrived refugees who had to leave their lives behind due to the violence in Sudan—the killings, the rapes, the ransacks. Hope, because despite dire development challenges, Chad is offering protection and safety, at least until refugees can return safely to Sudan.  

In Adré, we met refugees who hoped to study, get a job or any livelihood opportunity, and contribute to society—health workers, technicians, farmers, herders, lawyers, teachers, and students. But we also saw a host country affected by climate change and food insecurity, and where 42 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. 

What we saw exemplifies why we need a new approach—now. 

The first step is to recognize that refugee situations tend to last. In the absence of political solutions to international crises, millions of refugees have been in exile for years, sometimes decades.  Emergency humanitarian responses alone are not enough—a medium-term development approach is needed. For hosting countries, the challenge is to adopt policies that can be sustained over time, both financially and socially. For the international community, the challenge is to provide strong and predictable support with a long-term perspective. This is why it is so important for UNHCR —an organization focused on protection, humanitarian assistance and solutions to refugee situations—and the World Bank—an institution investing in long-term development— to join forces throughout a refugee crisis, from its onset to its resolution, while the end goal should always be to create conditions allowing refugees to go home. 

This brings us to our second point: inclusion is critical, at least until refugees can return safely home. It calls for a change in the way we think about refugees. From assistance to jobs. From parallel health and education delivery systems provided by humanitarian actors to inclusion in national systems run by governments with financial support from the international community. From confinement in regions where economic opportunities are scarce to freedom to move to other parts of the country where there may be jobs. 

Several refugee-hosting countries are already implementing such policies—from Europe in response to the Ukraine crisis to Latin America in response to the Venezuela crisis, or Türkiye, for example, with Syrian refugees. Because inclusion can dramatically reduce the costs of assistance. World Bank research shows that in Chad, assisting refugees costs US$533 million a year, but if they are given the right to work, the cost is US$207 million, and if given the right to work and move freely, the cost shrinks even further, to US$152 million.  

Inclusion, however, even if temporary, comes at a cost for host countries and communities. This must not be underestimated. They contribute to a global public good, and they need others to share the burden. Ninety percent of displaced people live in low- to middle-income countries that are facing their own development challenges . And our organizations are committed to providing support.  

Hosting countries need more international assistance—but we also need others to step in: businesses, foundations, cities, NGOs, and advocates. We need to support private sector investment because economic inclusion and job creation provide the surest path to sustainability. And we have seen encouraging progress. In Kenya, our institutions worked together to attract private businesses to the Kakuma-Kalobeyei refugee-hosting area. In Colombia, Venezuelan refugees who received micro-loans have started small businesses and are now contributing to Colombia’s economy.  

Lastly, and this is the most complex part, we must invest in prevention. For host countries and the international community, the foremost priority is to reduce the need for people to flee and to help create the conditions for their successful return. Organizations like ours can play a role in consolidating fragile peace and stabilization processes but resolving conflicts, fostering peace, and renewing the social contract are complex endeavors that require the engagement of other actors.  

The upcoming Global Refugee Forum, which takes place in Geneva this week, will be an important moment to come together and rethink the way we respond to refugee crises. If we acknowledge that most refugee crises may—unfortunately—last, if we recognize that long-term development is essential —along with addressing the root causes of conflict and displacement—and if hosting countries adopt inclusive policies, we will be able to restore a much-needed sense of hope in a world in turmoil.  


Anna Bjerde

World Bank Managing Director of Operations

Filippo Grandi

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000