I believe that a coherent approach to poverty reduction and development needs to include an acknowledgment that refugees represent approximately 16 million of the people who live outside their country of origin. Nearly three quarters of these indivdiuals can be found in countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East experiencing a number of important development challenges and constraints. We would be doing those countries a serious disservice, and missing an important opportunity, if our approach to poverty reduction and development ignored the presence and impact of refugees.

UNHCR recognizes that refugee populations, especially large ones concentrated in specific locations, can have negative consequences on the environment and, if the wrong policies are pursued also on the development of host countries and communities. When refugees are confined to camps for years on end, when they are kept in isolated, barren and insecure areas, when they are excluded from the labour market and have no access to banking or credit facilities, we cannot expect them to become productive and self-reliant, let alone an agent of benefit to the local economy.

On the other hand, if refugee influxes are properly addressed, refugees and the international assistance which their presence frequently attracts can contribute to development, both in the country of temporary stay and in the country of origin upon return. To achieve this requires coherent policies.  At a minimum, the international community must make development assistance available to refugee-populated areas – assistance that is over and above the development assistance that the countries would normally receive.

Multilateral organizations and NGOs specializing in humanitarian assistance and development must be prepared to work together.  Host countries must incorporate refugee-populated areas into national and area development planning process and create an environment which supports the livelihood strategies of refugees.  Recognizing that employment is vital to sustaining peace, UNHCR has worked closely with FAO, ILO, UNDP and more than a dozen other agencies in preparing the UN policy on employment creation, income generation and reintegration in post-conflict situations.

Refugees and displaced people have an important role to play in the reconstruction and peacebuilding processes of conflict-affected countries.  In a number of recent armed conflicts – Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone and southern Sudan, for example – a high proportion of the population was displaced by the fighting and forced to seek refuge in neighbouring states. With the conflicts having come to an end or diminished significantly in intensity, very large numbers have gone back or are in the process of going back.

Such movements represent both a developmental opportunity and a developmental risk. If addressed appropriately, in a coherent and comprehensive manner, large-scale repatriation movements provide national and international actors with an important opportunity to establish new livelihoods, reconstruct shattered infrastructure and improve social relations amongst different groups of citizens which at the same time helps consolidate peace and strengthen the foundation for democratic government.

On the other hand, when large numbers of refugees and other displaced people go back to their place of origin over a short period of time, there is inevitably a risk that they will return to a situation where they do not have and cannot find work, do not enjoy adequate shelter and lack secure title to land.  Moreover, groups of people who were once engaged in violent conflict may compete against other returnees for scarce resources and public services. To minimize these risks, security considerations have to be balanced with those of equity and programs have to quickly scalable to the appropriate size and integrated into national and area development plans.

In all its reintegration operations, UNHCR is actively participating in UNDAF, Delivering as One and other inter-agency planning processes.

In Lofa County in Liberia, UNHCR’s strong presence has anchored the creation of a Delivering as One office which includes FAO, UNDP, UNFPA, UNICEF, UNMIL, WFP and WHO.  With the increased presence of other actors and a coherent strategy for meeting the needs of both the reintegrating and local populations, UNHCR is able to concentrate its efforts on protection, rule of law and peace education.   Its former activities in health and education have been taken over by more development-focused agencies working closely with the government to ensure programs are sustainable.

In Burundi, UNHCR is working with the Government, FAO, UNDP, UNICEF, WFP, donors, NGOs and others to address issues of landlessness among returnees and other vulnerable people. This cooperation has led to the establishment of “integrated rural villages” which seek to ensure access not only to land but to economic support and essential services.   In October last year, UNHCR met with the World Bank to discuss possibilities of expanding cooperation in Burundi as well as a number of other post-conflict situations, including Afghanistan, Georgia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Iraq.  In February this year, UNHCR agreed with IOM to study land, housing and property issues in post-conflict settings more closely.

A coherent approach to poverty reduction and development must address the circumstances that cause people to flee their homes and countries in the first place. In this sense, development must be approached in an inclusive and rights-based way and not merely as a measure of GDP growth. This is recognized in the UN Declaration on the Right to Development but effectively denied to the more than 15 million people obliged to live as refugees outside their country of origin.

In recent years, many countries have expressed concern with regard to the level of resources they devote to the reception of refugees and asylum seekers and the processing of claims to refugee status. With the still accelerating economic decline, such concerns can be expected to increase. It is imperative however measures compromising the principles of refugee protection not be introduced in an effort to save money. Rights are not for sale in this way and in any event, restrictions on mobility often prove counter-productive.

Ultimately, in my view, a coherent approach to development is one that seeks to avert the armed conflicts, the governance failures and the human rights violations that prompt people to leave their countries and seek protection in other states.

I subscribe to the ID4D newsletter

Once a week, I receive the latest blog posts!

Agenda