Who thrives, who struggles? Exploring the determinants of economic success among refugees

Posted:
20 June, 2017

Today is the 16th United Nations' World Refugee Day, a day to recognize and honour refugees’ resilience, agency and capability.

A growing body of research is exploring the economic lives of refugees, and there is increasing evidence to show that refugees are economic actors who are not only able to sustain themselves but also to make socioeconomic contributions to their host societies.

However, now we need to go one step further and nurture a more nuanced understanding of refugees’ economic lives and the disparities between them.  

Refugees are no different from anyone else as human beings. In any community or population, different people suffer, survive or prosper in diverse ways, adapting to the environment in which they find themselves. Personal characteristics, such as business background, education, language skills and social networks, can have an effect on people’s livelihoods. Research on refugees’ economic lives therefore needs to understand and explain how these different factors relate to diverse economic outcomes.  

Currently, ODID’s Refugee Studies Centre is undertaking a study on refugees’ economic activities with South Sudanese, Somali, and Congolese refugees in Kenya, using the Kakuma camp and the city of Nairobi as primary sites. Although the research is still in progress, our preliminary observations indicate interesting variation in their economic outcomes.  

The findings demonstrate the importance of the surrounding contexts for refugees’ economic success. Regardless of nationality, the income level of refugees in Nairobi appears to be much higher than that in Kakuma camp. Nairobi’s urban refugees need to meet the cost of necessities on their own because they have little or no access to humanitarian aid – unlike camp-based refugees, who receive a free food ration and do not have to pay rent. But at the same time, those in Nairobi enjoy access to increased opportunities for income generation and education, as well as to amenities such as better transportation and the internet. Better access to these socio-economic infrastructures enables refugees to build more lucrative livelihoods than those refugees living in the camp.

The specific characteristics and capacities of households and communities also matter, of course. Even within the same geographical context, there is significant variation in household income levels across nationality groups. Regardless of their location, Somali refugees usually earn more income than Congolese and South Sudanese refugees. These differences are largely explained by the social and cultural assets of Somali communities. Utilizing their clan-based connections and transnational networks, Somali refugees tend to have better access to employment opportunities from Somali Kenyans and benefit from  remittance transfer systems. Detailed analysis of data in Kenya will be available later this year.

In recent years, promotion of ‘self-reliance’ for refugees has become a pressing agenda in the international refugee regime. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees broadly defines self-reliance as ‘the social and economic ability of an individual, a household or a community to meet essential needs in a sustainable manner’. This concept has been universally embraced by policy-makers and aid agencies and has now become an increasingly visible part of refugee assistance and protection programmes worldwide.

However, many past attempts to promote self-reliance have met with limited success. One possible reason for this failure that we should consider is a lack of systematic understanding of the differences in refugees’ economic capacities.

There are now more than 21 million refugees worldwide. It is not realistic to assume that all of the world’s refugees can fully exercise their capacity and attain self-reliance; in all societies, there are people who can be self-reliant but there are also those who struggle to make ends meet.

With a better understanding of the mechanisms that differentiate the economic consequences for refugees under various contexts, aid agencies could design and implement effective interventions that would nurture the skills and talents of refugee communities while providing targetted assistance for those with limited economic capabilities and resources.

Currently, the world faces the largest refugee crisis since World War II. It is undeniable that we need to pioneer new ways to support and enable refugees’ socio-economic independence in the long term. Recognizing and understanding differences in economic outcomes for diverse groups of refugees can offer an opportunity to radically re-think refugee assistance.

This post also appeared on the Oxford University Press blog.

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About the author(s)
Naohiko Omata
Senior Research Officer (Social Sciences), Humanitarian Innovation Project, RSC