Issue 31 - Article 15

Towards a new model for post-emergency refugee assistance

October 10, 2005
Jeremy Konyndyk, American Refugee Committee, Guinea

In many settings around the world, refugee assistance organisations working in situations of protracted displacement continue to provide emergency-level services long after the refugee population stabilises. These services are often far beyond what is available to the host population, and better than what the refugees will enjoy at home when they eventually repatriate. Meanwhile, few efforts are made to enable refugees to support themselves and develop self-sustaining livelihoods. This undermines the refugees’ livelihood skills, makes repatriation more difficult, and increases tensions with the host communities. Drawing on Guinea as an example, this article argues that humanitarian actors should develop a better transitional model for refugee assistance in situations that move from an emergency phase into protracted displacement.

Emergencies and long-term displacement – the traditional assistance model

In an emergency situation, refugees typically arrive in the country of asylum with little more than the clothes on their backs and whatever professional skills they might have. Most are extremely vulnerable, and neither practically nor psychologically capable of supporting themselves in the immediate term. During this phase, humanitarian actors seek to address the refugees’ most urgent needs – food, shelter, health care and water and sanitation. A little later, education, skills training, psychosocial support and other services are added into the mix. Given the refugees’ initial vulnerability, all services are provided free of charge, and require little or no contribution from the recipients.

In the longer term, levels of vulnerability decrease. Depending on the situation in the host country, some refugees may find independent employment inside or outside the camps. Others sell food and non-food items and other small products to raise supplementary income, and many find jobs with the NGOs that work in the camps. In Guinea, a moderately active economy has developed in the camps. However, humanitarian actors often disregard this economic context and its implications for effective assistance tactics. Apart from a few NGOs (including the American Refugee Committee) implementing micro-enterprise development activities, little attention is paid to fostering the economic self-sufficiency (or lack thereof) of the refugees. In Guinea, humanitarian actors have continued to provide emergency-level services, which are free and are premised on an extreme level of vulnerability, long after the level of vulnerability of the camp’s inhabitants has stabilised.

This is admittedly a simplistic outline of the traditional assistance model, and in practice a range of variations are present in different protracted refugee situations. Nonetheless, it seems clear that refugee assistance in many contexts remains fundamentally premised on the external provision of services to meet refugee needs, rather than on enabling refugees to meet their own needs. Lacking a developed model for the transition out of the emergency phase in a protracted refugee situation, it remains stuck in ‘emergency mode’, even over the longer term.

Problems with the traditional assistance model

There are multiple problems with the traditional assistance model. First, it undermines the long-term goal of asylum: repatriation. The sustained provision of free services after the emergency phase – once many refugees have the capacity and the desire to support themselves – erodes refugees’ livelihoods mechanisms. Refugees adapt to receiving free food, medical care, education, skills training and a variety of other free services. There is little call on them to use their job skills, and over time these unused skills deteriorate and are forgotten. The habits of functioning in normal economic conditions – where food, health care, education and other things all have real costs – are lost. This makes eventual reintegration into home communities very difficult, as refugees must adapt from a situation of near-total economic dependency to one of near-total self-reliance.

Second, high levels of assistance provide a strong disincentive to repatriate. Refugees generally face repatriation to a post-conflict situation in which the rehabilitation of their home communities will be a long and difficult process. Liberian refugees repatriating from Guinea can expect to find minimal public services, education and health care at home. While security is often cited by the refugees as a reason for staying, the example of the Sierra Leonean repatriation from Guinea shows that service provision in the camps is a major factor. Sierra Leonean refugees in did not finish repatriating until mid-2004 – several years after security had been thoroughly returned to that country. The key factor in convincing the final 15,000 or so to return was the impending reduction of services. Given the choice between returning home to face difficult economic conditions, or staying in the camps where needs are provided for, many Liberian refugees are electing to stay.

Though understandable, this is problematic. Asylum is fundamentally a protective measure – international refugee law is intended to give asylum to those who have a legitimate fear of persecution or of being caught up in a situation of generalised violence. In either case, once the war ends and security is restored in the home country, there is no longer a strong protection argument as to why the refugees continue to require asylum. If a large part of the reason for not returning is that economic conditions are difficult and the home country cannot provide adequate social services, then the basis for asylum is much harder to justify – particularly when the hosting country also has extensive economic problems. The idea that refugees can wait to return until their villages are rehabilitated can also harm their home communities by reducing the amount of reconstruction aid they receive. In a post-conflict rehabilitation context, aid is not generally delivered to abandoned villages; rather, it is directed to the areas where people are returning in the highest numbers.

Third, the traditional model of refugee assistance largely ignores the local host community. While some NGOs succeed in raising funds to implement a few side projects in host communities, these are often inferior in scope and scale to the projects carried out for refugees. In Guinea, for example, there is a fundamental inequity between the quality of services available to the two populations. While refugees receive extensive support from humanitarian agencies, impoverished Guineans in nearby villages have little food, low-quality health care and under-resourced schools. This has caused resentment between the host and refugee populations, leading to violence on a number of occasions.

Towards an improved assistance model

There is a need for a new approach to refugee assistance in protracted situations – one that takes into account reduced vulnerability over time, actively promotes refugees’ ability to support themselves economically rather than pushing them into dependence, and minimises tensions through better engagement of the host community. This would also make the return home swifter (by removing economic incentives to remain in the host country) and more durable (because refugees would retain their livelihood skills for use after return).

These are complex requirements, and there are serious obstacles involved. Under the current assistance model, refugees are theoretically insulated from the surrounding economy – their food is shipped in from outside the country, they are often not allowed to work outside the camp, and in any case they have few initial resources with which to participate in the wider regional economy. Increasing their participation in the regional economy could drive up prices as more consumers compete for local supplies of goods, and could put a strain on local natural resources. Another major obstacle, and one that is often a concern of host governments, is to avoid the creation of a permanent refugee settlement. If refugees develop businesses and support mechanisms within the local economy, there is a possibility that they will lose any interest in returning home, and will simply decide to settle permanently in the host country.

These are serious difficulties, but they can be dealt with. With regard to the permanence of a refugee settlement, these settlements are, in a protracted situation, semi-permanent already. The choice facing host governments is not, practically speaking, between a permanent or temporary settlement – rather, it is between a semi-permanent settlement that erodes the livelihood skills of its inhabitants, and one that does not. Nor does it necessarily follow that a refugee population that is deeply economically integrated with the host population will be slower to return because of these economic ties. While there is certainly truth in this, economic integration is unlikely to be a greater incentive to stay in the country of asylum than the provision of completely free food, health care, and education. Moreover, greater economic integration makes a cost-recovery approach more feasible, and this can be used to reduce the economic incentives for refugees to stay once the situation in their home country stabilises.

The question of resource competition is more difficult. However, with proper engagement by humanitarian actors, the problem can be mitigated. The Foundation for International Dignity (FIND), a West African NGO, has conducted mediation workshops between refugees and host communities in camps in Sierra Leone. These workshops have resulted in agreements between refugees and their host communities on resource-sharing issues such as the use of agricultural land. FIND’s work demonstrates that, when actively addressed, these rivalries can be eased. Indeed, engaging the host community more extensively in producing goods for the refugees, while also supporting joint refugee–host community business enterprises, could provide tangible economic benefits to the host communities, creating new consumers for local goods, generating jobs, and spurring local economic activity.

Developing a new approach

The problems outlined here could largely be addressed by decreasing refugees’ dependence on external assistance and better engaging the host community in assistance mechanisms. These actions would constitute an important move away from the traditional emergency response model towards a more appropriate protracted assistance model. Practical steps would include:

  • Increase attention to self-relianceSome agencies have been moving towards a greater focus on building refugees’ economic self-sufficiency within camps. ARC’s camp-based income generation activities for refugees across West Africa have proved very successful in developing refugees’ business skills and enabling them to create small enterprises. When linked and coordinated with micro-finance activities in the country of origin, these activities create an incentive to return while improving the durability of the returns. A high percentage of the clients of ARC’s micro-finance institution in Sierra Leone were formerly clients of ARC’s camp-based income generation program in Guinea. ARC’s gender-based violence programme also provided skills training to vulnerable refugee women in Guinea’s camps. A post-repatriation follow-up survey, conducted by ARC in Sierra Leone, showed that more than 70% of the former GBV beneficiaries located by the surveyors were making use of their ARC-taught skills as their primary source of income
  • Increase efforts to advocate with the government and host populations with regard to economic opportunities for refugeesHumanitarian actors should greatly increase efforts to persuade governments and host populations to allow refugees fuller access to economic opportunities in the country of asylum. Farmland could be designated for refugee use, and refugees should be permitted to work and take jobs on the same terms as the local population (this has been tried with some success in Zambia
  • Decrease assistance levels as the population stabilises, and build cost-recovery into remaining assistance activitiesAs refugee vulnerability decreases, and in conjunction with activities that promote refugee self-sufficiency, NGOs’ assistance levels should be decreased and linked to cost-share elements. To the extent that livelihood skills can be preserved by enabling refugees to operate within a more realistic economic context, humanitarian actors should strive to create such a context. For example, health care providers in the camps could charge token fees for certain health care services; necessary caveats could be built in to ensure that refugees who remain extremely vulnerable would be exempt. This would be appropriate in a context like Guinea, where the surrounding host population pays fees for health services, and the refugees will have to pay such fees upon their return home. Token payments would reduce the economic disincentives to repatriation, and would also help to reduce fraud.
  • Balance levels of assistance for refugees and for the host populationThe traditional approach to refugee assistance pays lip service to the inclusion of the host community in assistance endeavours, but in Guinea and many other contexts, this is not a major consideration for humanitarian actors. A far better alternative would be to balance the levels of services available to both populations, while engaging the host population in the provision of services to the refugees. This would decrease tensions between the two groups, while creating a concrete incentive for the host population to be more welcoming to the refugees. One form that this could take would be the provision of health services through existing local health structures. Assistance could be structured to increase local capacity to handle the additional caseload, in conjunction with programmes to enhance the quality of services. This would provide tangible benefits to the host community, ensure a comparable level of services for refugees and the host population, and avoid the need to construct a costly and unsustainable parallel health system for the refugees.

These recommendations do not constitute an exhaustive list; however, they do indicate a better direction for refugee assistance in situations of protracted displacement. It is time to develop a transitional model for post-emergency refugee assistance – one that focuses on promoting refugees’ self-reliance, and which does not create economic dependency. Humanitarian organisations can best assist refugees in situations of protracted displacement by enabling them to meet their own needs, rather than by seeking to meet those needs on their behalf.

Jeremy Konyndykis Country Director, American Refugee Committee, Guinea. His email address is:

References and further reading

Merrill Smith, ‘Warehousing Refugees: A Denial of Rights, A Waste of Humanity’, World Refugee Survey 2004,

Ton de Klerk and Tim Nourse, ‘Developing Micro-enterprise in Refugee Camps: ARC’s Experience in West Africa’, Humanitarian Exchange, no. 28, November 2004.

Melissa Leach, Dealing with Displacement: Refugee–Host Relations: Food and Forest Resources in Sierra Leonean Mende Communities During the Liberian Influx, 1990–91, IDS Research Report 22, 1992.

Karen Jacobsen, The Economic Life of Refugees (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2005).


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