Refugee communities are often integrated within vibrant and complex economic systems. Recognising and understanding this represents an opportunity to turn humanitarian challenges into sustainable opportunities.
In theory, international response to refugees should pass swiftly from emergency assistance to a so-called ‘durable solution’. Yet, in practice, solutions are often unavailable for political reasons. Opportunities for reintegration into the state system are too often simply not available to refugees. The result is that they are left for many years in camps, settlements or impoverished urban areas, with limited socio-economic rights and opportunities.
It has long been recognised that a better alternative to protracted limbo and long-term encampment is what has been framed as ‘self-reliance’ – essentially finding ways to offer refugees freedom of movement, the right to work, and support in the pursuit of their own economic opportunities, pending going home. In order to try to support such opportunities, the international community has been through numerous historical attempts to close the so-called ‘relief-to-development gap’, and to try to include refugees within development plans.
However, external interventions to enhance self-reliance have had limited success. This lack of progress has sometimes been because of resistance by host governments, the unwillingness of humanitarian and development actors to work together, or the lack of funding for development-based approaches to refugee assistance. In other cases, it has been because such approaches have been poorly conceived.
In spite of the constraints they face, many refugee communities around the world are “doing it for themselves” when it comes to seeking solutions to their own economic challenges. It has the potential to unlock ways to enable those economic systems to be channeled to the benefit of refugees, host states, and donors, as well as possibly offering a neglected opportunity for private sector entrepreneurship.
However, we lack conceptual clarity or good data on the economic lives of refugees and displaced populations. Where political economy analysis has been undertaken, it has mainly focused on one of two areas. First, it has examined ‘livelihoods’ – the ways in which refugees engage in income-generating activities. This has entailed research on the range of activities through which refugees seek employment or self-employment, as well as assessing the impact of external livelihoods projects and interventions. Second, some work has explored the economic impact of hosting refugees on host states.
At the end of the day, we need to look at ways in which refugees’ economic activities are not simply reducible to livelihoods but are part of a wider system involving consumption, production, exchange, and finance. It also reflects an attempt to provide a ‘bottom-up’ perspective by exploring refugees’ economic lives from the perspective of the people themselves rather than from the ‘top-down’ perspective adopted in studies concerned primarily with assessing the impact on host states or informing narrowly-defined policy interventions.