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By Theresa Beltramo, Alexander O’Riordan, Jens Hesemann, Jason Gagnon

Venezuelan families living in shelters in Brazil voluntarily participated in Brazil’s 2022 Census. ©UNHCR/Camila Ignacio Geraldo

Evidence shows that host economies benefit when refugees attain socio-economic integration

The benefits to hosting states of socially and economically integrating forcibly displaced and stateless populations are many. Evidence suggests that a progressive policy environment that enables refugees the right to work and the freedom of movement (among other rights) improves economic output and can mitigate the cost of inclusion in the medium term (Ginn, 2023). A recent IMF study on Venezuelan refugees hosted by Latin American countries estimates that with the right support and integration policies, Venezuelan refugees have the potential to increase real GDP in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and Chile by between 2.5 and 4.5 percentage points relative to a no-migration baseline by 2030 (IMF, 2022). These clear economic benefits offer compelling reasons for partnering host countries’ investment and public financial management planners in designing developmental policies that are responsive to the socio-economic needs of forcibly displaced people.

The fiscal impacts of including forcibly displaced persons are frequently felt the most by the communities, local mayors, and local governments who host them. In particular, the first year of new mass displacement emergencies is often the most challenging for hosting countries, as local resources and capacities often need to be improved, requiring urgent and fast external support. But evidence from Turkana County in Kenya finds that over time, refugees are a net benefit to the local community, with an estimated permanent increase in GDP of 3.4% as a direct result of refugee presence (World Bank, 2016).

But how does inclusion in public services and development planning happen? What holds back systemic inclusion? And what is the role of national statistics?

We argue that inclusion of forcibly displaced in national statistics is a necessary step towards socio-economic inclusion, but not a binding one. In order to embed forcibly displaced into national development plans, local champions, in particular, are pivotal in ensuring that once displaced persons are counted in national statistics, they then are also included in national programmes.

The number of people forced to flee conflict, violence, human rights violations and persecution has grown steadily over a decade, recently surpassing 100 million people — a historic high that is equivalent to 1% of the global population. Analysts predict that conflict- and climate-induced displacement will exceed 1 billion people by 2050 (IEP, 2022).

In only eight out of 58 low and middle-income countries (LMICs) that each host more than 100,000 refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) do displaced populations represent more than 15% of the total population (OECD, forthcoming 2023 publication). Given the relatively small portion of refugees compared to the national populations in most countries, the economic cost of including refugees in public services is low compared to total fiscal expenditures on social services, infrastructure, administration and security.

Supporting refugees in protracted forced displacement requires inclusive social services and development planning

The estimated duration of forced displacement is a key parameter to defining an adequate response. One recent estimate on the average duration of displacement shows that 42% of refugees arrived over the last four years, 32% have been displaced for between 5 and 9 years, and 27% for 10 years or more (DeVictor, 2019). The long-term nature of most refugee situations highlights the need for sustainable and inclusive approaches from the beginning of a crisis.

National development planning is a consultative process facing competing priorities. Planners respond best to those constituencies able to participate, voice their concerns, and do so with evidence. When forcibly displaced and stateless people are not explicitly captured in national data collection exercises such as population censuses or household surveys, they are at a disadvantage – if a planner cannot see a constituency because it is neither named nor quantified, that constituency will likely remain invisible when allocating developmental resources.

Even in transparent and fair planning processes, fiscal allocations within a country, among other factors, are shaped by reported population size. Thus, when not included in national statistics, local governments ostensibly do not receive resources for service provision for refugees, internally displaced, and stateless people who live there. Yet the displaced exist, and mounting evidence suggests they are frequently more vulnerable than the non-displaced population, and thus have a high demand for government services. Phone surveys measuring COVID-19 impacts reveal deep inequities in wellbeing indicators across refugees and hosts (Joint Data Center, August 2021; UNHCR , 2022; UNHCR 2022; UNHCR and World Bank, 2021; UNHCR 2021; UNHCR, 2021; World Bank, 2022;  World Bank and UNHCR, 2021).

Identifying the socio-economic profile of refugees and IDPs, and maintaining updated statistics on such populations, though costly and complex, has improved. The UN Statistics Commission has made great strides by establishing the Expert Group on Refugee, IDP and Statelessness Statistics, a sub-group of the UN Statistical Commission who have produced a methodology for measuring refugees, IDPs, and stateless people in national statistics exercise.

Lessons learned on how to improve inclusion of forcibly displaced into national statistics exercises

When forcibly displaced are mainstreamed in national statistics exercises, this does not automatically translate into inclusion in national plans. A cursory look at a the national statistics bureaus of a select few host countries found that while the State of Palestine, Lebanon, Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Jordan count refugees or displaced populations in national data collection exercises,  only two of these five countries refer to refugees and IDPs prominently in their national development plans. The reverse may also be true: in Somalia and Syria, national statistics on refugees and IDPs are not officially recorded, though forcibly populations figure prominently in their national development plans.

Statistical data is evidence and a valuable tool. But development planning and accordant allocation of host government resources is a competitive process. To contribute to the inclusion of forcibly displaced people in national planning, evidence is only valuable insofar as it gives forcibly displaced people advantage in the competitive process. Data, thus, is only valuable when it goes hand in hand with (efforts to strengthen) the voice of forcibly displaced people to participate in and influence developmental planning.

Experience in developing national development plans shows that the forcibly displaced need champions to ensure their inclusion in national development plans. These include local councils, unions, faith-based groups, political parties, and civil society organisations.

To succeed with inclusion in national planning, fiscal resource allocation, and service delivery, local champions for refugees and IDPs need to be recognised and given space to participate in and instigate inclusion in national systems in host countries. Local champions must be mobilized to create political incentives to push through better statistics, references, and policies.

International development partners and institutions are also critical to engendering the inclusion of forcibly displaced in national systems. Internationally agreed development effectiveness principles state that sustainable interventions require country ownership (UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Global Partnerships for Effective Development Cooperation). At the same time, the policies of LMICs can be incentivised by development partners through direct budgetary support, piloting and demonstrating proof of concept, or institutional capacity building. When international development partners use their convening authority and financing to mobilize local champions, they increase political incentives for inclusion.

In conclusion, the pathway towards the sustainable inclusion of refugees, IDPs, and stateless persons in national systems and development plans starts with mainstreaming these populations into national statistics exercises. However, to take the further step of then including these populations into national development planning and programming means embracing local champions and supporting them to be effective at summoning evidence through inclusive national statistics. Combined with advocacy and engagement at the national and international level, real opportunities exist to increase the overall socio-economic inclusion of forcibly displaced and stateless persons into national development planning and programming.