A world of self-reliant refugees? Reflections on World Refugee Day

Posted in: Gender, Labour, Refugee

By Katharina Lenner
Self-reliance has become an evermore important element of international responses to refugee crises in recent years. It is, for example, core to the UN Global Compact for Refugees, which came into force late last year after years of negotiation. The Compact insists that development initiatives must be closely connected with humanitarian programming in order to support the creation of livelihood opportunities for both refugees and host communities. This focus in itself is not new. Self-reliance has been, under various names, part of the strategic repertoire of refugee assistance agencies since the 1920s. What has changed is the increased urgency with which it has been promoted in recent years, as well as the specific interpretation of what self-reliance means in a displacement context.

Past planners sought to support the collective self-sufficiency of refugees, e.g. through promoting agricultural settlements that were supposed to produce enough to sustain themselves. Current strategic thinking, in contrast, seeks to create ‘win-win solutions’ that put refugees to work in ways that maximise their contribution to host country development. Accordingly, the current discourse of self-reliance has grown alongside the creation of new modalities that link humanitarian and development goals, such as trade agreements that provide preferential access to Western markets to sectors or factories relying on refugee labour.

A number of international agreements with refugee-hosting countries have sought to put these ideas in motion. The Jordan Compact, a commitment from the Jordanian government to provide up to 200,000 work permits to Syrian refugees in return for sustained donor support for the country’s economic development, has been one such pioneer. It has since served as a model for other countries entering into similar agreements, such as Ethiopia.

Between victimhood and forced entrepreneurialism

This shift has had mixed effects on displaced populations. The global push to legalise and promote refugee labour constitutes a welcome change from policies seeking to cordon off refugees from local labour markets through encampment and criminalisation – still the dominant way of dealing with the presence of refugees. Where this has led to policy changes and employment initiatives, it has made life easier for those refugees who are able to access the new opportunities. On a broader level, it has also helped to move away from primarily casting refugees as helpless victims bereft of agency and in need of humanitarian care – a long-standing critique of humanitarian interventions.

However, the shift has in many ways gone too far. Refugees are now primarily cast as individual entrepreneurial subjects who are not only able and eager to work, but also have a responsibility to do so. In line with ‘welfare to work’ approaches in Europe and the US, this framing implicitly signals that host governments’ and the international community’s responsibility of care for refugees is, at best, temporary. This is clearly seen in the changing discourse of the Syrian refugee response in the Middle East, where the messaging around self-reliance has been strongly connected with the expressed wish of Western donors to reduce their humanitarian funding levels.

Putting refugees to work – at what cost?

Agency representatives in Jordan concede that, in the wake of the Jordan Compact, recipients of work permits are much more likely to see their assistance cut. This has, for obvious reasons, made refugees hesitant to formalise their work. Many rely on a combination of assistance and informal jobs to survive, and the low wages they tend to receive often cannot compensate for the loss of cash assistance or food vouchers.

Many refugees also inhabit precarious legal and social positions that prevent them from accessing employment opportunities. Restrictions on their right to work, constrained mobilities, broken social networks, and a lack of knowledge about local labour markets mean that, even if they want to work, their ability to find a job that corresponds to their previous experience and skills is severely constrained. Even in places like Jordan, where there is now an ostensible openness to allowing refugees to work, many sectors remain closed due to the government’s fear that local workers will be (seen to be) crowded out.

Reducing funding or shifting from basic assistance to livelihood support also means endangering those who are not able to take care of themselves. Particularly in situations of conflict-induced displacement, the number of those who cannot work due to injuries, trauma, or other care duties can be substantial.

The prioritisation of putting refugees to work has also meant neglecting the quality of the work they do. Research I conducted with Lewis Turner about the Jordan Compact shows that the attempt to raise the number of work permits as much as possible has made the decency of that work a secondary concern. And although issues like working conditions and precarity are discussed more by now, there is danger that a path has been set that will be difficult to change in practice.

Is women’s low labour market participation actually a problem?

Many of the issues surrounding the discourse of refugee self-reliance come to a head in the question of female refugees’ employment. Many policy shapers involved in the regional response to the Syrian crisis agree that their low labour market participation constitutes a problem that needs to be tackled through sustained intervention. But what actually is the problem?

Female refugees do a lot of work. They have childcare responsibilities, take care of other household members, bear the brunt of domestic work, and many are also single household heads due to the absence or death of their husbands or male relatives. Many are also in dire need of additional cash and would like to work in order to make ends meet, but they cannot simply forsake these responsibilities in exchange for formal work outside the house.

A good number of Syrian women do earn money informally. They set up hair and nail salons at home, cook and clean for neighbours, and engage in other income-generating activities that cannot be formalised due to legal restrictions. Programs and projects set up to increase female refugee employment are often surprisingly ignorant of these well-known dynamics. This became clear in the failure of a high-profile attempt in Jordan to recruit Syrian women into the garment industry in a number of special economic zones, which Lewis Turner and I have explored in depth. There is an urgent need to get away from imagining female refugees as disconnected individuals that can be mobilised at will. Instead, programming needs to start from the actual lives of displaced women, and what they think might be supportive of their attempts to increase the cash flow.

The same goes for refugee labour more broadly: strategies to expand displaced populations’ self-reliance need to start from what refugees want and need, rather than defining it for them. They should push to change the many restrictions refugees tend to operate or, where necessary, adapt to them, rather than forcing refugees into whatever work host governments and agencies deem suitable. Employment promotion also must not lead to letting the international community off the hook. Refugees continue to need recurrent assistance to support themselves.

True commitment to supporting refugee self-reliance would include helping refugees to legally enter and work in Northern countries. In fact, the insistence of many donor countries that refugee self-reliance in countries of first reception needs to be strengthened, while closing off their own labour markets to (forced) migrants, can only be read as attempt to make the world’s refugees stay where they are – far away from Northern societies and labour markets. This self-serving aspect will always make self-reliance programming seem hypocritical, as it seeks to make refugees just strong enough to survive by themselves but not strong enough to do what is best for them. That often is – like it or not – further migration.

Katharina Lenner is Prize Fellow at the University of Bath. Her current research focuses on the effects of livelihoods programming on Syrian refugees in Jordan.

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Posted in: Gender, Labour, Refugee


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