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Refugee integration: recognising the benefits of inclusion

by Michele Binci and Karin Seyfert | Oxford Policy Management
Thursday, 8 June 2017 10:17 GMT

Khalid Khalaf Ibrahem, from Zomar, holds his baby after arriving at a refugee camp in Salamiya, Iraq May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

To feasibly live amongst host communities, refugees must have some form of integration. But how to achieve this in practice?

Crisis. Emergency. Temporary. All words that have been associated with refugees in recent media coverage. In reality, these are all slightly misleading. No one is denying the huge devastation associated with being forced to flee and seek shelter and support in another country, but many – including politicians – seem to ignore the reality of the situation: the refugee ‘issue’ doesn’t just go away; it’s a protracted one.

Displacement is long-term, usually years rather than months, and while only 7-8 percent of the global migrant population are refugees, 86 percent of these are currently living in low- and middle-income countries. What are the implications of this for policy makers in host countries that may already struggle to provide basic services for their own citizens?

Many, including the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, recognise that keeping refugees in camps is neither a desirable or viable option. Camps and the short-term humanitarian assistance associated with them are not sustainable solutions, and risk creating parallel assistance structures to those already in place. Added to this is the growing recognition that an influx of refugees can actually lead to economic benefits for host countries over the longer term.

To feasibly live amongst host communities, refugees must have some form of integration into, and therefore access to, services within that country – but how to achieve this in practice?

Money as a means to access?

Cash transfers are now recognised as social protection mechanisms that can offer a longer-term alternative to other forms of in-kind humanitarian assistance such as food or clothing. Two of the main arguments in favour of cash are that, firstly, it provides flexibility and autonomy for refugees to make their own spending decisions and, secondly, is cheaper to implement than large-scale procurement of basic needs.

We recently carried out an assessment of UNHCR’s cash transfer programme for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, assessing the extent to which the transfer allowed recipients in those host countries to avoid resorting to desperate measures to meet their basic needs, such as putting children into the labour market, incurring unsustainable levels of debt or living in unhygienic or unsuitable housing.

Our findings were conservatively optimistic: while the transfers do indeed prevent many from resorting to such strategies, they are not enough on their own to enable vulnerable refugees to meet their basic needs. Cash transfers are one important form of assistance that can considerably improve the lives of refugees, but often don’t offer an automatic ticket to essential social services.

Sustaining integration

Integration into social and economic structures requires more than cash, though. Lack of legal status, attitudinal barriers (prejudice, harassment) and other practical obstacles (language, inadequate transportation, etc.) can all contribute to limited access to host country services and economy. A number of these barriers are likely to be at play at any one time – indeed, in 2016, less than half of all refugees globally were integrated into national education systems, suggesting that, despite the best efforts of different stakeholders, meaningful integration is neither fast nor easy.

But this isn’t an excuse not to try and there are certainly encouraging signs: ‘compacts’, or agreements between donors, international organisations and governments, are emerging as a new way of pooling expertise and resources to support refugees through host country institutions. Importantly, these new partnership models – currently active in both Jordan and Lebanon – are helping host countries bridge the gap between short-term humanitarian assistance and longer-term development aid. And there are further steps that policy makers can take to help ensure the sustainability of different approaches to integrating refugees – at both national and international levels.

A key requirement for sustainability – and something that all national governments should prioritise – is building the resilience of existing systems so that they do not collapse under the weight of additional people using them. Some countries are already investigating this as part of compacts – in Lebanon, for example, we recently conducted an assessment of the costing and funding for Reaching All Children with Education (RACE), the Ministry of Education and Higher Education’s plan to provide Syrian refugee children access to the Lebanese education system.

A more equitable distribution

At a global level, the international community can do more to support the equitable distribution of refugees amongst countries so that the absorption of vulnerable populations is shared more equally and with less disproportionate impact on the systems of a small number of host countries.

There is no denying that the upfront costs of settling refugees can be high – hence the need for compacts – and tensions over host country citizens losing out to refugees in the labour market have also been reported, albeit mainly anecdotally. The empirical research that does exist concerning the ‘burden vs benefit’ of refugees, however, points overwhelmingly to the latter over the longer term, giving countries an even greater reason to proactively ‘share out’ refugee flows between them.

The international community has already made great strides in recognising that refugee camps are not a lasting solution; we now need to take conscious steps to move away from the outdated notion that refugees always and only need temporary and emergency provision, rather than proper integration in host country communities, institutions and structures.

Policy makers should have the courage to challenge the negative consensus on refugees by championing a more evidence-based and effective approach that would allow refugees to integrate into the social fabric of host countries. This strategy may have some risks, but agreeing a fairer and more equitable share of refugees, and finding feasible long-term and sustainable options for opening up existing social and economic structures, would ultimately, but surely, allow refugees to begin to contribute back into those same structures, thus making integration beneficial to all.

Dr. Michele Binci and Dr. Karin Seyfert are development consultants at Oxford Policy Management