Self-reliance as a contemporary ‘durable solution’ to forced displacement

Published: 20 Jun 2020

IRRI Press Statement on World Refugee Day 2020

20 June 2020 is World Refugee Day. This year’s theme is Everyone can make a difference. Every action counts. Refugees can and do make a difference in the host communities where they seek refuge, and their actions count. This is most evident globally, where we have seen refugees and migrants at the forefront of the COVID-19 response, stepping up and dedicating their service and expertise, at great personal risk. In turn, countries have relaxed and changed their policies, regulations and certification processes in order to enable refugees to fully participate in the fight against COVID-19. If concerted efforts were made towards ensuring real self-reliance for refugees, then they will be better placed to make a significant difference in host countries.

Hosting 26% of the world’s refugee population,[1] Africa renewed its commitment during the 2019 African Year for Refugees, Returnees and IDPs, towards ensuring durable solutions for forcibly displaced persons on the Continent. For solutions to be durable, sustainable and impactful, they need to be people-centred, contextual and aimed at reaffirming dignity, rights and agency of refugees. They also need to be aimed at ensuring self-reliance of refugees which in turn builds their resilience. UNHCR defines self-reliance as ‘the ability of individuals, households or communities to meet their essential needs and enjoy their human rights in a sustainable manner and to live with dignity”.[2] There is a growing body of literature that critically explores the notion of self-reliance, but there is a need for further interrogation in order to better understand how refugees are impacted by the application of the notion.

There are lessons to be learned from the Ugandan government which has been implementing a self-reliance strategy for refugee response for nearly two (2) decades through its 2017 Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF); its 1999 Self-Reliance Strategy for Refugee Hosting Districts of Adjumani, Moyo, and Arua (SRS); and its 2001 framework and local government directives.

IRRI has teamed up with researcher Andreas Muff to produce a series of articles titled Self-reliance for Refugees in Contemporary Uganda that delve deeper into the notion of self-reliance and explore what it has meant in both policy and practice in refugee responses in Uganda. The series, which will be launched this month, will include empirical information collated by Andreas during his fieldwork in 2019.  The series provides a more nuanced explanation of self-reliance, and argues that despite the global shift towards promoting self-reliance in the refugee regime, there are significant consequences and effects in practice, that are not adequately addressed in the current refugee response policy framework.

The goal of many self-reliance initiatives is to shift from seeing refugees as “vulnerable victims” to “self-governing and entrepreneurial refugee[s]… who will be responsible for their futures”.[3] However, where there is a focus solely on empowerment, it transfers the responsibility for realising self-reliance to refugees and may prove to be an inadequate response, given that systemic and structural issues are also part of the problem. In addition, a narrow focus on employability and economic incentives and opportunities is insufficient to ensure that refugees can build resilience, without considering other essential aspects of life such as education, health, housing, legal access and community support structures, as being part of the self-reliance rubric. For example, encampment policies which lock refugees in remote and scarce-resource areas, with limited access to factors of production, and protracted situations of displacement where generations of refugees lack legal documentation and access to citizenship, pose an overwhelming challenge to achieving self-reliance and building resilience.

In order to achieve real self-reliance there must be proper investments in and strong and appropriate programming towards self-reliance that can be rationally scaled down over time. “Refugees are people who need to live holistic, fulfilling and meaningful lives, in dignity. It is to this cause that we must bring our best efforts. We cannot leave anyone behind,” said IRRI’s Executive Director, Achieng Akena. David Kigozi, Director at IRRI added, “we no longer have the luxury of treating refugees as mere recipients of aid. Refugees have skills and competencies that can and do make a difference, when we facilitate their agency. In a rapidly changing global context, we must enable refugees legally, socially and financially to live full lives, and to effectively participate in the societies where they reside”.

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[1] UNHCR Africa

[2] UNHCR 2017 Resilience and self-reliance from a protection and solutions perspective

[3] Ilcan & Rygiel, 2015: 337

Programmes: Rights in Exile
Regions: Great Lakes Region
Type: Press Release