More than 108 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide, according to UNHCR’s recent estimates. Today, World Refugee Day, marks the anniversary of the signing of the 1951 Refugee Convention—the most important international legal document on refugees—and serves to bring critical attention to this group.
Last year, we highlighted five areas to watch in the world of refugee policy; they remain just as important today. This year, we’ll highlight some of our recent work on these areas. Our findings surprised us, shifted our views, and shaped our engagement, and we hope they can contribute to meaningful progress for displaced people.
1. Erecting barriers to refugees’ work rights is nearly universal
Host governments create all kinds of legal and practical barriers which prevent refugees from working, from remote camps with restrictions on movement to bureaucratic delays in processing work permits. Sometimes these barriers are codified in law, but implementation is often the key. Our recent review of the evidence finds that removing these barriers helps refugees significantly, unsurprisingly, while yielding minimal or positive effects on host communities.
In partnership with Refugees International and Asylum Access, we documented these barriers in 51 countries that hosted 87 percent of the world’s refugees in 2021. Our 2022 Global Refugee Work Rights Report is accompanied by an interactive website and a dataset to facilitate more research. We find that at least 62 percent of refugees live in a country with ‘adequate’ laws. However, there is a wide implementation gap: practical barriers exist in every country we study, and at least 55 percent of refugees live in a country where those barriers are significant in practice. We argue that laws are often a necessary, but not sufficient, ingredient for refugees’ right to work.
2. Providing information alongside aid can improve attitudes towards refugees
Immigrants—including refugees—often have positive net economic impacts on their destination country. Immigrants increase demand for goods and services, create jobs, fill labor shortages, and can bring skills that are complementary to locals. While these effects are commonly documented in economic studies, they’re less visible to many citizens than, say, competing over a specific job. These perceived negative effects fuel anti-immigrant narratives and policies.
In a randomized controlled trial in Kampala, Uganda, we test a program to make the gains from hosting refugees more tangible and visible to citizens. We provide business grants to Ugandans alongside a short message that explains the grants are coming from the foreign aid that supports refugees in Uganda. We find that the grant with the information led to higher levels of support for additional refugees, refugees’ right to work, and having refugees as a neighbor. The effects lasted at least two years. Donors and implementers could significantly influence social cohesion with this cheap, complementary input to their ongoing programs.
3. Financing refugee situations is tough, but multilateral development banks (MDBs) are waking up
In late April, the World Bank published the 2023 World Development Report (WDR), focused on “Migrants, Refugees, and Societies.” Impressively, its central premise is that migration will be increasingly necessary for all countries, due to global economic imbalances, demographic trends, and climate change. CGD research was extensively cited, and the narrative reflected many of our core findings—especially how policy can enable migration to be win-win.
We brought together top experts and practitioners and published a blog to discuss the findings. Both centered on why it is important that the Bank chose to focus on these issues, especially now. Currently, the Bank’s “Evolution Roadmap” is exploring how their financial instruments, mandate, and structure need to adapt to better support cross-border challenges. While much of the conversation to date has focused on climate change, addressing the growing number of migrants and refugees must be paramount (including ‘climate refugees’). Same goes for other MDBs, especially those engaging in the Working Group on Economic Migration and Forced Displacement. They could consider adapting and replicating the Bank’s Window for Host Communities and Refugees, ensuring they link financing to policy progress.
4. Defining a ‘climate refugee’ is impossible, but there is a way forward
Climate change is already causing people to move and will increasingly do so. The relationship between climate change and migration is complex; profound questions exist about where people will move, why, and what can be done to increase their resilience to future climate shocks. But, as Michael Clemens and Sam Huckstep argue in a large new research report, complexity does not justify inaction. There are numerous things governments can do to help those vulnerable to climate impacts at the national, regional, and international levels.
In a series of pieces, we looked at why it’s impossible to define a ‘climate refugee.’ Essentially, the drivers of movement are too complex and political buy-in is too limited to be able to operationalize a new category of protection. Instead, we suggested people should be allowed to move—through labor migration pathways, regional free movement agreements, or specific visas—enabling faster access to a location of safety and the ability to send remittances back home to support adaptation and resilience-building.
5. Breaking away from log-frames is hard, but delivers better outcomes for refugees
Humanitarian and development crises are increasingly protracted and complex, with no clear solutions. Using a log-frame—which determines at the start of a grant what the project will achieve and how—therefore makes little sense. Instead, some projects are experimenting with adaptive management approaches. Theories about how to achieve certain impacts are tested and adapted based on frequent cycles of reflection.
Along with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), we’ve been trying to implement such approaches in the first two years of our Re:Build project, which aims to achieve economic self-reliance for urban refugees and other vulnerable residents in Kampala, Uganda, and Nairobi, Kenya. Our survey revealed that implementing such approaches in practice is hard; you need an enabling environment that helps staff highlight what isn’t working and allows them to change project plans and budgets. But doing so ensures you aren’t pursuing courses that are unlikely to reach your intended goals.
So what are our plans for the coming year? Primarily, we want to explore the interaction of refugee livelihoods with the places they live, the people they encounter, and the support they are provided. We’re always open to new collaborations, especially looking at the impact of innovative policies in these spaces, so please do get in touch!
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.
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