At the end of May, UNHCR announced that over 100 million people are currently displaced around the world. That’s equivalent to a third of the total US population.
The sobering reality is that many people have been pushed out of their homes, but how are they faring now?
It’s a tale of two trends. For the millions of refugees and displaced people around the world, some things are improving—such as laws enabling them to work, move, and access services. And some things are getting worse—such as opportunities for resettlement and asylum.
Ahead of World Refugee Day, June 20, we look at some of the trends from the past year and explore what global decision makers need to focus on in the year ahead to improve the lives of millions of displaced people across the globe:
1. Laws are getting better, but there’s an implementation gap.
Research from Blair et al (2021) covering 92 low- and middle-income countries from 1952-2017 has found that the laws and policies that govern the rights of refugees in these countries have become more liberal over time. As further evidence, Kenya’s new Refugee Act greatly expands refugees’ right to work and move, Colombia recently regularized 1.7 million Venezuelans, and Chad enacted its first-ever asylum law.
Yet there is a large gap between the rights granted in law (de jure) and in practice (de facto). Upcoming research from CGD, Refugees International, and Asylum Access finds that the majority of refugees live in countries that significantly restrict their rights to work in practice–even when the laws technically allow it. This implementation gap must be narrowed.
2. Host countries need more assistance, with strings attached.
Some countries, particularly low- and middle-income countries, have commendably hosted large numbers of refugees and displaced people in recent years. Almost seven million Ukrainians are sheltering in neighboring countries, hundreds of thousands of new Afghan refugees arrived in Pakistan following the government collapse, and millions of Venezuelans have been displaced throughout the region.
Hosting refugees comes at a cost—at least in the short-term—and the international community must step up to provide more financial support. But some of this support should come with strings attached and significant oversight of the host country’s laws and policies. Recent funding initiatives such as the IDA Sub-Window for Host Communities and Refugees and Refugee Compacts can link increased international investment with policy improvements.
The World Bank has already taken steps to document refugee policies and practices in these countries in detail. The next step is to ensure that host countries with more inclusive policies are sufficiently rewarded. Such models could be better if they were deployed immediately following a displacement crisis to support neighboring countries, rather than waiting for a crisis to become protracted.
3. Resettlement and asylum are under attack, despite the massive benefits.
A displaced person has two primary options to access a high-income country: apply, wait, and hope to be one of the lucky few chosen for refugee resettlement; or try to reach the country and claim asylum in person. Both avenues are under attack.
While the global refugee population has almost doubled since 2011, the number of people who have been resettled has declined by half. The same restrictions can be seen with regard to asylum-seekers. Following the UK’s new Nationality and Borders Bill, the UK government is planning to send asylum seekers to Rwanda. According to UNHCR, this scheme creates an asylum model that “undermines established international refugee protection rules and practices.”
For its part, Denmark is expelling Syrian refugees. And in the United States, Title 42 has effectively barred the right of individuals to seek asylum at the Southern border since March 2020.
This is despite the fact that the benefits of admitting refugees and asylum seekers continue to far outweigh the costs. For example, Trump-era policies led to a 68 percent reduction of US refugee arrivals between 2017 and 2019. That lack of new workers and ideas in the economy continues to cost the U.S. government over $9.1 billion per year.
4. Focusing on a “wave” of climate refugees misses the point.
In 2020, 40.5 million people were newly displaced (the highest figure in ten years) – and weather-related events such as cyclones and floods accounted for 98 percent of the figure. To date, almost all are moving within their countries, but this increase in climate displacement has still led many high-income countries to become worried about a “wave” of so-called “climate refugees.” Notably, this issue was a hot topic at the recent International Migration Review Forum (IMRF).
As well as taking action to reduce the drivers of climate change in the first place, governments should stop fretting about the numbers and destinations of potential climate migrants and start enacting good laws and policies to govern their movement. Such laws, if well designed, could ensure that this type of migration contributes to development and climate adaptation goals, while also supporting ethical and genuinely voluntary relocation. Some countries are beginning to grasp this—with, for example, new humanitarian visas becoming available—but others are stuck in discussion mode.
5. Data and impact evaluations are increasing, but there’s a long way to go.
International and national agencies pour billions into programmes aiming to provide refugees in low- and middle-income hosting countries with increased economic and social opportunities. Yet, to date, we know very little about “what works” in this space, as so few programmes are rigorously evaluated. In fact,through 2020, fewer than 25 published randomized evaluations looked at programs for displaced populations.
This is slowly beginning to change, especially at the academic and international levels. Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) has launched a Humanitarian and Forced Displacement Initiative, implementing and funding new rigorous evaluations, and Schuettler and Caron (2020) managed to review 115 papers on evaluations of jobs interventions for refugees and internally displaced people (though many were from high-income countries). To showcase this research, UNHCR’s Joint Data Center on Forced Displacement has held two conferences and continues to support data collection and access to more information about these evaluations at the international level.
Yet a gap persists within implementation. Many NGOs merely conduct monitoring, rather than impact evaluations (those that use a viable comparison group). So, for example, while we may know how many people participated in a training, we don’t know whether they actually managed to secure better economic outcomes as a result. Because displacement is often protracted, rigorous research is a critical investment that enables decision makers to use limited funding effectively over the long-term.
As one example, CGD is partnering with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) on a new initiative—Re:Build. This project aims to understand “what works” for livelihood programs in an urban context and to document how evidence and adaptation can guide a multi-year funding commitment. But much more is needed.
The number of displaced people continues to grow. Over the next year, decision makers need to take a hard look at the data and evidence of what works and continue to enact win-win policies that help refugees and host countries alike.
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.