• The pandemic has underlined the urgency of enabling refugees to use their skills to support themselves.
  • New coalitions and a tool for measuring the efficacy of self-reliance programmes for refugees will help to encourage this process.
  • The private sector also has a huge role to play.

COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerability of refugee populations around the world. The pandemic has compounded existing problems of poverty, food insecurity and marginalization from legal and social protections, creating a double emergency. But the crisis also reveals something else: the critical need to foster the self-reliance of refugees as a route to long-term resilience.

Out of necessity, refugees are some of the most enterprising and entrepreneurial people on the planet. This pandemic highlights the urgency of giving them a chance to use their talents and skills to support themselves. In doing so, and simultaneously supporting refugee-hosting communities, everyone stands to gain. The alternative is to condemn tens of millions of people to decades of living in a desperate state of limbo.

Today, many refugees are displaced for more than 20 years and the chances of an individual finding a new life are diminishing. There were a record 79.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2019, including 26 million refugees, of whom around 60% live in cities rather than camps. Fewer than 2% of refugees worldwide were able to access a durable solution last year, in the form of repatriation, permanent resettlement to a safe country, or legal integration into the country of first asylum. The vast majority of refugees are hosted in developing countries, inhabiting a shadow world without official rights or a social safety net. Lacking work permits, many work in the informal economy, a sector highly impacted by the pandemic.

It is an extremely tough life. Yet urban centres also bring opportunities. With access to a little capital and support, refugees can build micro-businesses, find other income-generating activities, and take important steps toward self-sufficiency. The 'crisis' is not one of refugee numbers but of failures of international governance and humanitarian response. The situation is by no means hopeless.

Fredric and Dalia show what is possible. War and persecution forced the young couple to flee their home in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2015 and to seek safety in Nairobi, Kenya. Their problems were compounded by the serious illness of their daughter. But after securing basic needs support, business training and an initial grant of $200 from our organization, RefugePoint, Fredric was able to grow his small business selling phone accessories and chargers. COVID-19 slashed his sales in Nairobi, but he has shown true entrepreneurial flair by finding a new niche market for his products outside the city in remote rural areas.

Overall, RefugePoint has helped launch nearly 1,200 refugee-led businesses in Nairobi and some 3,000 clients have succeeded in moving off of assistance thanks to their own earnings. The pandemic, however, has walked back much of that progress. Many refugees have lost what were already meagre incomes, leaving them struggling to pay for food, rent and medicines.

But there are bright spots that highlight what is possible when refugees are enabled to take control of their own finances and futures. Others – just like Fredric and Dalia – have managed to adapt. They include tailors who have switched to making face masks and small businesses that have diversified into making and selling soap and hand sanitizers. Such stories illustrate what happens when people can make use of their skills to find new ways to continue to earn a living: the whole community benefits.

At this moment of crisis, humanitarian groups around the world obviously need to help people survive by addressing basic food, shelter and health needs. But it is also vital to help refugees continue on the path towards self-reliance to ensure that individuals and communities build resilience to future shocks. This includes enlisting the support of private sector companies, which can help by hiring refugees, using refugee-led businesses in their supply chains, or using impact investing as a way to support refugees and their host communities.

Policy-makers are starting to rethink the traditional top-down, short-term approach to refugee assistance. The world spends an average $29 billion each year on emergency aid. Yet this is a 'Band-Aid' strategy that spreads humanitarian budgets impossibly thin and keeps refugees dependent on erratic and often meagre handouts. We need to support refugees to improve their quality of life through their talents and skills. This is what the majority of refugees tell us they want.

Fortunately, this is not a pipe dream. A number of promising models are emerging: UNHCR and the World Bank’s Poverty Alleviation Coalition promoting the graduation approach; RefugePoint’s Self-Reliance Runway approach; and unconditional cash transfers or 'cash plus' models, among others.

Until recently, though, there was no systematic way to measure a refugee household’s movement towards self-reliance and to assess which programmes worked best. Finding a way to measure impact across programmes and geographies, would be, as one humanitarian put it, the "holy grail" of humanitarian response.

Responding to this need, a new global coalition, The Refugee Self Reliance Initiative, came together to share learning and promote uptake of self-reliance approaches, with a goal of reaching 5 million refugees in five years with programming that puts them on a path to self-reliance. The Initiative pulled together the best thinking and advice from across the humanitarian sector and from refugees themselves to create The Self-Reliance Index, a tool for measuring a refugee household’s progress toward self-reliance. Grassroots refugee-led organizations, as well as many of the largest international non-governmental organization in the world and the UN Refugee Agency, have expressed interest in using this tool or promoting it with partners to build an evidence base that can inform funding priorities and advance self-reliance opportunities.

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In parallel, we still need to expand resettlement opportunities, and to exploit existing visa pathways such as family reunions, employment-based visas and study visas to help refugees find new homes. It’s an uphill task with COVID-19’s travel and asylum disruptions, but opportunities do still remain. Canada, for example, has recently committed to taking hundreds of refugees through a labour mobility programme.

Ultimately, however, most refugees will not have the chance to legally relocate to a third country or return to their original homes. For them, finding a path to self-reliance in their host countries that allows them to meet essential household needs and improve their quality of life is the best hope. COVID-19 may have made the task more difficult, but it also demonstrates why we must double-down on this endeavour.