Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

UNHCR, refugee livelihoods and self-reliance: a brief history


UNHCR, refugee livelihoods and self-reliance: a brief history

22 October 2003

The extent and nature of UNHCR's role in the promotion of refugee livelihoods has fluctuated considerably over the past 50 years. In the 1950s, the organization's activities were largely confined to Europe, and focused on the provision of legal protection and the organization of resettlement programmes. As a result, the issue of refugee livelihoods did not feature on the UNHCR agenda.

New refugee movements

This situation began to change in the 1960s and 1970s, when a new spate of refugee movements in Africa and other less-developed regions began to take place, obliging UNHCR to extend the geographical scope of its operations. At this moment in history, the most common response to mass refugee influxes, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, was the establishment of large-scale agricultural settlements on land made available by host governments. Such settlements, it was assumed, would quickly become self-reliant, at which point they could be "handed over" to the authorities.

While considerable resources were devoted to the establishment of such settlements, this approach to the refugee problem in less-developed regions was not particularly successful. By the early 1980s, it had become clear that few agricultural settlements had reached the level of self-reliance required for a 'hand over" to take place. Instead, UNHCR and its operational partners found themselves trapped in long-term "care-and-maintenance" programmes, providing refugees with basic needs such as food, water, shelter, health care and education.

Refugee aid and development

Attempts were made to find a way out of this situation, most notably the ICARA 1 and ICARA 2 conference ('International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa') in the early 1980s. ICARA 2, for example, was jointly organized by UNHCR and UNDP, and had as its principal theme "Time for Solutions." In brief, the conference hoped to raise substantial amounts of funding from the international community, which would be used to implement development-oriented activities in refugee populated areas, benefiting exiled and local populations alike. This strategy was referred to as "refugee aid and development."

Unfortunately, the ICARA 2 strategy met with little success: partly because of some fundamental contradictions in the way that refugee-hosting countries and donor states perceived the objectives of the strategy; and second, because the large-scale famine that occurred in the Horn of Africa in 1984-5 placed emergency response - rather than self-reliance - at the top of the international agenda.

Repatriations and emergencies

From the mid 1980s onwards, UNHCR's lack of engagement with the issue of refugee livelihoods was reinforced by the organization's growing preoccupation with situations where refugees were on the move: a series of large-scale repatriation programmes made possible by the closure of the Cold War (Cambodia, Central America, Mozambique, Namibia, etc.); and a spate of new emergencies, many of them also linked in some way to the demise of the bipolar state system (the Balkans, the Great Lakes region of Africa, Liberia, Northern Iraq, Somalia, etc). While this preoccupation with situations of movement was understandable, it blinded UNHCR to the fact that large numbers of refugees throughout the world were not going anywhere, but were trapped in what have now become known as 'protracted refugee situations'.

To the extent that UNHCR was concerned with livelihoods issues during the 1990s, then the organization's interest and involvement was very much focused on the reintegration of returnees in countries of origin - rather than self-reliance amongst refugees in countries of asylum. Working on the assumption that repatriation now represented the only feasible solution to large-scale refugee situations, during this period UNHCR began to emphasize notions such "sustainable reintegration," "returnee aid and development", and the "relief to development gap."

New interest

In contrast to the pattern of events in the 1990s, during the past three years, UNHCR has demonstrated a new degree of interest in protracted refugee situations, refugee livelihoods and self-reliance. This development has been the result of several factors.

First, UNHCR has been involved in fewer large-scale emergency operations and repatriation programmes, and has consequently been able to give greater attention to other aspects of the organization's work.

Second, with declining levels of relief available to refugees in many parts of the world, especially Africa, it has become increasingly clear the UNHCR cannot meet minimum humanitarian standards by means of long-term assistance programmes. At the same time, donor states and other actors have become increasingly interested in strategies that might in the long term lead to a reduction in the levels of relief expenditure.

Third, in an environment where growing numbers of host states and societies are expressing concern about the presence and negative impact of refugees on their territory, UNHCR has been prompted to place a new emphasis on the 'productive potential' of refugees.

Fourth, in recent years, it has become increasingly evident that protracted situations have a wide range of negative consequences - not only for refugees themselves, but also for host states, local populations and for national and regional security. For when refugees are trapped in camps for years on end, without any hope for the future, they are much more likely to become involved in military, criminal and anti-social activities.

Fifth and finally, the resurgence of interest in refugee livelihoods and self-reliance can be ascribed to the appointment of a new High Commissioner, Ruud Lubbers, with a determination to address UNHCR's mounting budgetary shortfalls and to find solutions to longstanding refugee situations.

Self-reliance and refugee rights

There has traditionally been a tendency amongst humanitarian organizations to approach the issue of livelihoods and self-reliance from a technical perspective, focusing on the effective design and implementation of initiatives such as income-generating projects, micro-finance programmes, agricultural settlements and vocational training programmes. While this technical perspective is important - as is the question of financial resources - there is also a need to link the question of livelihoods with the issues of rights and protection.

Recent research undertaken by UNHCR's Evaluation and Policy Analysis Unit indicates that many of the world's refugees are unable to establish and maintain independent livelihoods because they cannot exercise the rights to which they are entitled under international human rights and international law.

They have very limited freedom of movement. They have no access to land or the labour market. They lack legal status, residence rights and documentation. And in many cases, they are living in areas where violence and instability act as a serious constraint to the pursuit of economic activities. Current initiatives to place the issue of refugee livelihoods back on the UNHCR agenda must evidently take these issues into account and lead to a vigorous programme of advocacy with refugee-hosting governments.

Jeff Crisp
Evaluation and Policy Analysis Unit