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The potential of social protection for forcibly displaced people

By Jason Gagnon, Head of Unit, Migration and Skills, OECD Development Centre & Jens Hesemann, Senior Policy Advisor, OECD Development Co-operation Directorate/GPP, Crisis and Fragility Team

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There are over 100 million forcibly displaced people in the world today – more than ever before. Armed conflicts, like Russia’s war against Ukraine, continue to drive more people away from their homes, with most displaced people remaining in limbo for a long time. Low- and middle- income countries (LMICs) host over 80% of the world’s refugees and IDPs. With the right policies in host countries and supportive development co-operation, there is an opportunity to achieve pragmatic interim solutions for the displaced. This can be a win-win for the host communities and displaced populations alike, where socio-economic integration yields multiple benefits.

Formal durable solutions, such as voluntary return, local integration, or settlement elsewhere, remain out of reach for the majority of displaced people. Over 74% of all refugees have been displaced for over five years. In 2021, only 490 000 refugees were able to return to their country of origin or resettle in a third country. Even fewer were able to acquire nationality of their host country. While the data is more obscure for internal displacement, we know that 56% of Sudan’s internally displaced people (IDPs) have been displaced for over ten years, and that 80% of Syrian IDPs have been displaced for more than five years.

Not only does fragility drive forced displacement, but fragile states also host over 60% of all forcibly displaced people. Given the dim prospects in the fragile contexts from which they have been displaced, refugees and IDPs are often unable or unwilling to return. At the same time, weak social service systems in many fragile hosting states, combined with limited social and economic opportunity and political instability, prevent refugees and IDPs from successfully integrating.

The Venezuela and Ukraine forced displacement situations have shown that there are ways to manage forced displacement differently. In both situations, many of the forcibly displaced fleeing across borders are now able to work and access social service systems similar to citizens of the host countries. This reduces the burden on the humanitarian response, promotes the agency of refugees themselves to meet their needs, and contributes to social cohesion. In response to the 1.8 million Venezuelans arriving on its territory, Colombia enacted the Temporary Protection Status (TPS), providing Venezuelans with documentation and access to rights over the next ten years. In the Ukrainian case, as close to 7 million people were forced to flee the country, the EU swiftly activated the Temporary Protection Directive, allowing Ukrainian refugees to move freely in the EU and granting them a wide range of socio-economic rights.

This is not to say that these situations have been managed so far without difficulty, and that the same approach is possible everywhere. However, there is growing recognition that better inclusion is possible and can benefit hosting countries.

Social protection: a potential pathway for inclusion of IDPs and refugees

Social protection programmes are one way of supporting the sustainable inclusion of refugees and IDPs in the socio-economic fabric of the host country. Social protection plays a key role in accelerating progress towards achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and in leaving no one behind. Social protection is a key element of national strategies to promote human development, political stability, and inclusive growth.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, the ILO identified 1 700 new initiatives on social protection across the globe in 2020 alone. In Argentina, Brazil and Cameroon for example, forcibly displaced persons benefit from government social assistance programmes to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Policy on social protection should be adapted to support forcibly displaced people. This can help reduce costs as the forcibly displaced people begin to contribute to social insurance and the broader fiscal system of the host country. This cannot happen overnight, however. Government social protection systems in low- and middle- income countries may find it hard to rapidly include additional (forcibly displaced) beneficiaries, unless the system is mature, flexible enough and adequately resourced.

A recent OECD and Swedish Expert Group for Aid Studies (EBA) paper investigated this issue in twelve countries, highlighting three main findings. First, that the maturity and history of the social protection system in the hosting country largely determines the effectiveness of inclusion of forcibly displaced persons. Second, while both refugees and IDPs are legally entitled to social protection in most countries, very few are actually benefiting from this. And third, a complete picture remains elusive, due to large data gaps.

The promising news is that there are several areas in which both host and donor countries can work together to enable better inclusion of forcibly displaced people in social protection programmes. For instance, host country governments and their partners can incorporate social protection more firmly into national preparedness plans for displacement crises. Donors can support broader social protection system development and multi-year financing for the inclusion of forcibly displaced populations. And access can be facilitated by including forcibly displaced persons in state identity management systems and social registries.

What next?

There is emerging evidence that the right inclusion policies and related development responses can help reduce the economic cost of forced displacement. There is no silver bullet, the specific context and political economy matter. Good coordination among all actors across the Humanitarian-Development-Peace Nexus is required. More data, evidence, and actionable policy guidance is also needed. In many forced displacement contexts, there appears to be a large gap between global policy on the one hand, and realistic practical implementation at national and local level on the other.

There are a number of questions to answer. To what extent are recent good practice policies actually implemented, including the Global Compact on Refugees, the UN Secretary General’s action agenda on internal displacement, and the DAC INCAF common position on supporting comprehensive responses in refugee situations? How can we ensure alignment between hosting states and donor governments? How can political will for the right approach to managing forced displacement be mobilised and sustained? How can social protection become part of the solution when such large gaps exist in coverage?