Forced displacement in 2021: much to commemorate, little to celebrate

 By Martin Wagner, Senior Policy Advisor Asylum, ICMPD, Caitlin Katsiaficas, Policy Analyst, ICMPD, and Benjamin Etzold, Senior Researcher, BICC

This year, we celebrate 70 years since the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention was signed. While the Convention has aged relatively well since its inception and has remained relevant for so long, global developments have left their mark. Ever more protracted, mostly internal, conflicts make true solutions for displaced people scarce. As a consequence, UNHCR has sounded the alarm on the growing numbers of displaced persons, virtually every year for the past decade, on the occasion of World Refugee Day (20 June). As expected, the 2020 figures presented at this year’s world refugee day were no different.

The international community, spearheaded by UNHCR, has taken considerable action to tackle this trend, seeking global allies to expand access to solutions for refugees who have little chances for return or resettlement. The Global Refugee Forum, created to promote the 2016 Global Compact on Refugees, mobilises a broad array of actors and initiatives committed to its objectives. Two of these goals are: 1) building opportunities for refugees to become self-reliant and 2) expanding third-country solutions (through resettlement for the most vulnerable and other safe and legal pathways for refugees to complement resettlement).

Building solutions around displaced peoples’ own resources and networks

In the conventional understanding, it is the responsibility of states to provide durable solutions to people in protracted displacement. A state-centred approach, however, risks underestimating or even disregarding the ambitions and capacities of displaced people themselves. Research under the EU Horizon 2020-funded project Transnational Figurations of Displacement (TRAFIG) investigated the mobility of displaced people in the Middle East, East Africa and Europe and how they manage their everyday lives using transnational and local networks as resources. The research shows that many refugees rely first and foremost on their own human, social and financial capital to build a more secure future:

  • Refugees with strong human, social and financial capital often require less support to access solutions. Their professional or personal networks provide them access to diverse opportunities locally or in third countries, including via regular migration pathways, meaning that they are not reliant on the international refugee/aid regime.
  • On the other side, displaced people with weak financial, human or social capital have limited social and professional networks. To sustain their lives, they often depend on state or international support. Legal and secure pathways to third-countries are beyond their reach without institutional assistance, for instance through resettlement programmes.
  • In between, the majority of displaced people rely in part on their own human, social and financial capacities. The strength of their social capital, such as strong family networks abroad, may make them less reliant on state or international support, but it is often not enough to help them access local livelihood opportunities or seek third-country solutions on their own.
©ICMPD; Wagner, M. and Fogli, C.

While legal pathways are open to those with strong financial, human and social capital, resettlement is a tool reserved for the most vulnerable. For those falling somewhere in between, newly emerging complementary pathways can help provide alternative and safe ways for refugees to access third-country solutions.

What does this mean for policy and practice?

The extent of the support that networks can ultimately provide depends on their quality rather than their size. It also depends on the supportive policies and practices in place (or not) to help refugees build and leverage their networks. Research in the Democratic Republic of Congo showed that organisations, including religious and civil society groups, have stepped in at times to provide support networks for internally displaced persons.

Receiving states should therefore not prevent displaced people from making use of their own resources and capacities. And development, humanitarian and other actors should embrace networks as a force multiplier for solutions. They should work to help refugees build up and tap into networks of both formal and informal connections.

Positive refugee-host relations set the stage for successful network building in local communities. NGO-facilitated gatherings of Syrians and Jordanians through religious and youth arts courses were well received by refugees in Jordan as they were able to make new connections through these programmes. On the contrary, a lack of stronger relationships with Jordanians was connected to a lack of programmes, initiatives or activities fostering interactions and a greater sense of community.   

Good refugee-host relations also enable joint entrepreneurial opportunities that serve both refugee and host communities. For instance, in Ethiopia, locals contributed their land, refugees provided funding from their own savings for additional workers’ salaries, and a local NGO stepped in to provide start-up capital for a joint cotton venture. In Tanzania, an NGO paired refugees with locals to create joint business plans and offered trainings; in the ensuing competition, eight winning pairs received small grants to bring their project to fruition.

Diasporas can be an important player for refugee networking. Research in Ethiopia showed that diasporas, notably refugees’ families, friends or relatives, are a source of financial and logistical support, for instance enabling mobility (e.g. moving out of camps) and employment (e.g. finding a job or starting a business). Strengthening networks between diasporas and refugee communities can thus enrich local as well as third-country solutions. Support from diasporas can take the form of development assistance, investment or microfinance, while diaspora members can also provide a market for refugee businesses, as seen in Tanzania. Additionally, they can support migration to another country by providing a network for sponsoring the admission of refugees and their subsequent integration. Such community sponsorship schemes have recently gained much attention as a complementary pathway to protection.

The way forward

In sum, building networks in host countries to leverage refugees’ skills and social ties can help to significantly expand access to complementary pathways. Community networks in receiving countries are also essential to facilitating mobility and helping new arrivals to settle in. Civil society, employers and diaspora networks all have an important role to play. Meanwhile, transnational networks, whether private (e.g. family links) or professional, can form a bridge to support legal and secure mobility for refugees – but they require state support to work. From a governance perspective, improving refugees’ access to other countries requires states and supra-national organisations such as the European Union (EU) to overcome sectoral divides and strengthen co-operation across actors, including international organisations, states and civil society, and across sectors, for instance involving the European Commission’s directorates for Migration and Home Affairs together with its directorate for International Partnerships, as well as national ministries of interior, employment, foreign affairs and development.

Tapping into networks offers a broad playing field for different actors and actions to support refugees in finding local and third-country solutions, while enabling them to capitalise on their own resources, potentials, and aspirations.