Opinion
Resilience, Peace and Security

It’s time to change the way we support refugees

A sign hangs on a balcony and reads "refugees welcome."

We need a new approach in how we support refugees Image: UNSPLASH/Ricardo Gomez Angel

Anna Bjerde
Managing Director of Operations, The World Bank
Filippo Grandi
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, (UNHCR)
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  • When it comes to dealing with refugee crises, emergency humanitarian responses are not enough – a medium-term development approach is needed.
  • This involves changing how we think about refugees and working to integrate them into their host communities.
  • Because doing this will put a strain on host countries, we also need others to step in: businesses, foundations, cities, NGOs and advocates.

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.

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How is the World Economic Forum supporting refugees?

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% of the population lives between the poverty line.

What we saw exemplifies why we need a new approach to how we support refugees – now.

Dealing with long-term exile

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. The end goal, of course, should always be to create conditions allowing refugees to go home.

Changing how we think about refugees

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.

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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 $533 million a year, but if they are given the right to work, the cost is $207 million, and if given the right to work and move freely, the cost shrinks even further, to $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.

Investing in prevention

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, and require a multistakeholder approach.

The Global Refugee Forum, which took place in Geneva this week, was 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.

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