Oxford professor slams refugee 'warehousing,' calls for more freedom

by Katy Migiro | @katymigiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 20 June 2014 02:00 GMT

A South Sudanese refugee girl washes utensils at the Tzaipi refugee camp in Adjumani, 470 km north of Uganda's capital Kampala. Picture January 17, 2014, REUTERS/Edward Echwalu

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Instead of languishing in camps for years, refugees should be allowed to work and trade, report says

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Refugees can be an economic asset, not a burden, and a radical rethink is needed of host countries’ humanitarian policies, an Oxford University professor has said.

The majority of countries “warehouse” the world’s 15 million refugees in camps, assuming that they will be able to return home or resettle elsewhere. Yet research shows that nearly two-thirds come from countries with ‘protracted’ crises and have been displaced for an average of 17 years, Alexander Betts told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Children and young people are often being born into protracted displacement situations and are often lacking basic freedoms: the right to move freely, the right to work,” said Betts, an associate professor at Oxford’s International Development Department.

“It compromises the core elements of human dignity and we are effectively warehousing human beings. We need to dramatically change our approach. It’s not good enough to leave people indefinitely in limbo,” said Betts, lead author of the report ‘Refugee Economies: Rethinking Popular Assumptions.’


The report states that ‘self-reliance’, a Ugandan policy allowing refugees freedom of movement and the right to work, is better than long-term isolation  in a refugee camp.

“It’s not only refugees that potentially gain. It’s host governments, host societies, and donors who… can over the long run invest their money more wisely than simply supporting long-term dependency,” Betts said.

Uganda provides refugees with food aid for the first five years, gradually reducing rations until they are expected to support themselves. Those who still need aid after this period do receive it. Refugees are supposed to live in the camps but are given plots of land to farm.

Researchers found that 99 percent of some 1,500 refugees interviewed in two Ugandan camps and in the capital, Kampala, were earning their own income. They identified 70 types of work, from farming and beauty care to transport, accommodation, entertainment, clothing, finance and professional services.

The 200,000 refugees hosted by Uganda are important to its economy as both suppliers and customers.

Ugandan traders travel to camps like Kyangwali to buy maize, beans and sorghum grown by the refugees.

“Last year, I think I bought 500 tons of maize and beans from Kyangwali,” a trader called Ronny, who sells domestically and exports to Tanzania and South Sudan, told the researchers. “My main trading crop is maize and 60 percent of my maize stock is from Kyangwali.”

In Kampala, Congolese refugees hawk fabric and jewellery on the streets.

“Congolese people are the most important customers for me,” one Ugandan jewellery shop owner said. “I receive about 100 retail buyers a day. 70 of them are Congolese refugees.”

Refugee business owners in Kampala employ an average of two people, and 40 percent of their staff are Ugandan.

“We are hosted by Uganda so I think we should give [employment] priority to members of our local host,” the refugee owner of a lodge in Kampala said in the report.


Most of the developing world, which hosts 80 percent of the global refugee population, requires refugees to live in camps, and most countries do not allow them to work. They are usually seen as an economic drain and a threat, competing for scarce resources.

“Refugees don’t have to be a burden,” said Betts. “Refugees are human beings like everybody else and their ability to contribute is dependent… on the policies that we apply to them. Where we give them a policy framework that creates opportunity, they will contribute.”

Zambia is the only other African country with a similar approach. It is giving Zambian citizenship to 10,000 Angolans who have been refugees there since the 1960s, recognising that they now regard Zambia as their home.

“We are not getting durable solutions,” said Betts.

As wars drag on, refugees cannot return home. Only one percent are offered resettlement in a third country. And few refugee hosting countries are willing to allow permanent local integration.

“We get stuck with a response that is designed for the emergency phase but continues to be applied year on year,” he said.

“What we need is something between those extremes, some kind of progressive solutions that gradually enhance self-reliance, gradually empower refugees to have greater opportunities, to be entrepreneurial, to be self-employed.”

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