When displacement isn’t temporary

Kammi Scheeler, a master’s student in my post-war reconstruction and transition course at SAIS, writes:

The World Bank hosted a panel Wednesday on the need for alternatives to refugee camps, as part of its three-day forum on Fragility, Conflict and Violence. Three themes emerged from the speakers’ presentations:

  1. Displacement should be treated as a development issue, not a humanitarian one. National development planning should take into account all populations in the area, including displaced persons.
  2. Displaced persons must be recognized as active participants in development with the capacity to contribute to host communities.
  3. Government capacities to process and support refugees in alternative ways need to be strengthened.

The first presenter on the panel was Steven Corliss, Director of the UNHCR Division of Programme Support and Management. He discussed UNHCR’s policy to seek alternatives to camps in as many circumstances as possible. Where not possible, the UNHCR still works to protect the rights of refugees and create living conditions that foster individual empowerment and dignity.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said “anyone who thinks refugee camps are a good idea has never lived in one.” Camps will not disappear, as they remain needed to meet immediate needs in emergency situations. The problem, Corliss believes, is when camps are used as an automatic response to displacement, or when host governments do not have the tools to provide alternatives.

One of the primary pitfalls of camps is the loss of human capital. Typical refugee camps operate as temporary, emergency relief, providing little opportunity for inhabitants to utilize or develop skills. In protracted situations, their inhabitants lose the ability to manage their own livelihoods.

There is a persistent concern among hosts that allowing refugees to integrate will deter them from returning home. Camps will remain as host governments insist upon them. But when refugees are better integrated into local communities and labor markets, they are able to contribute economically and maintain independent livelihoods, encouraging earlier repatriation and better reintegration upon return.

The second speaker, David Apollo Kazungu, is the Commissioner of Refugees for the Ugandan Government. Uganda’s shared borders with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and South Sudan have led to a persistent influx of refugees escaping conflict since the 1950s. Uganda is now host to 415,000 refugees, with more expected from South Sudan in coming months. Refugees in Uganda are predominantly settlement-based, living alongside and sharing resources and services with Ugandan nationals. Although refugee status is meant to be a temporary solution, the persistent conflicts and instability of Uganda’s neighbors has led to more protracted situations.

This has necessitated a shift from humanitarian support to development support. Uganda’s Settlement Transformation Agenda is a uniquely comprehensive and progressive approach to refugee integration. Its key tenets include security enhancement, access to justice, settlement survey and planning, infrastructure development, refugee and host community empowerment, and peace building and conflict resolution initiatives.

Commissioner Kazungu stressed the importance of these last two programs saying, “refugeehood should be a chance to reconcile and learn to live side by side.”Since most of Uganda’s refugees fled their homes due to conflict, the government of Uganda is making a stronger effort to facilitate conflict resolution among diverse refugee populations so that they may create more stable communities upon return to their home countries. Although Uganda has shown a great deal of openness and commitment to receiving and integrating refugees, they face challenges such as encroachment, land inelasticity, and dwindling resources with no signs of decline in refugee inflows.

The remaining panelists included Niels Harild, the lead social development specialist for the World Bank’s Global Program on Forced Displacement, who reiterated the importance of viewing displacement as a development issue rather than merely a humanitarian one. The second half of the event provided examples of alternatives in action, with World Bank project leaders sharing data from programs in Turkey and Azerbaijan. In Turkey, the Bank is assessing the impact of Syrian refugees on host communities and recommending policies for integrating refugees outside camps. Azerbaijan has approximately 600,000 internally displaced persons supported by a Social Fund for the Development of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). This project provides settlements and services to raise the standard of living for IDPs and also creates income-generation opportunities. Both cases highlight the range of possible ways to incorporate displaced persons into longer-term national development planning.

PS: In response to a comment on this piece, here is Killian Kleinschmidt at TedX Hamburg:

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One thought on “When displacement isn’t temporary”

  1. Thank You Kammi and Daniel for taking time to report on the World Bank’s FCV initiative. If you haven’t already had the opportunity to view Kilian Kleinschmidt at TEDxHamburg, I would strongly recommend it The plight of refugees and internally displaced persons – people who have had to flee normality for fear of persecution is filled with incredible hardships. Establishing a sense of normalcy, as soon as possible certainly has shown to be a dynamic that is worth striving for…

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