Using Trade Preferences to Support Refugees and their Hosts

Over 25 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their home countries, and many of these refugees have been or will be displaced for decades. Yet neither donors nor host countries have come to grips with the increasingly protracted nature of these situations, and the associated need for refugees to have access to education and healthcare and be permitted to move about and seek jobs so they can support themselves and their families. Local communities and host countries also need new kinds of assistance to adjust to these realities and create opportunities for everyone. This brief explores how donor countries could use trade preferences to help host countries create jobs and facilitate the transition from humanitarian relief to economic inclusion.


Violence and persecution have forced nearly 26 million people to flee their homes and take refuge in countries other than their own. The vast majority of refugees are living in developing countries and nearly four in five are in countries neighboring their own.[1] Many of the countries hosting large numbers of refugees are poor and fragile and refugees’ needs inevitably put additional strain on host governments and local communities. Yet the mechanisms by which the international community can contribute to supporting hosts and refugees are ad hoc and, despite improvements in recent years, they remain inadequate.

Moreover, neither donor nor host countries have come to grips with the fact that many of today’s refugee crises will be prolonged and that responses need to reflect that.[2] The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that the number of refugees in “protracted situations” rose from 66 percent in 2017 to 78 percent in 2018, a total of 15.9 million refugees. Nearly 6 million refugees were in situations that had lasted 20 years or more.[3]

It is also important for policymakers to realize that most refugees no longer reside in camps and rural areas. That was largely true in the early 2000s, but UNHCR estimates that 61 percent of refugees today are dispersed across urban areas. These refugees are particularly vulnerable to exploitation or arrest because they often lack work permits or legal authorization to move around freely.[4]

Both refugees and members of their host communities need more than short-term, emergency aid to live a decent and dignified life. Refugees need access to education and healthcare, as well as legal permission to move about and seek jobs so they can support themselves and their families. Local communities and host countries need assistance in creating opportunities for refugees and locals alike, especially low-income communities that are hosting disproportionate numbers of refugees. External financial assistance is, and will remain, essential. But both donors and host countries need to do more to facilitate the transition from humanitarian relief to longer-term development assistance and trade measures could help.

[1] UNHCR, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2018, Geneva, 2019.  

[2] Cindy Huang et al., “Tackling the Realities of Protracted Displacement,” CGD-IRC Brief, Washington, D.C. and New York: Center for Global Development and International Rescue Committee, 2018 /publication/tackling-realities-protracted-displacement-case-studies-whats-working.

[3] UNHCR defines a protracted situation as “one in which 25,000 or more refugees from the same nationality have been in exile for five consecutive years or more in a given host country;” UNHCR, op. cit., p. 22.

[4] Ibid., p. 57.


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