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Protracted displacement: uncertain paths to self-reliance in exile

The number of refugees and IDPs around the world and the duration of their displacement have increased over the past two decades. In 2009 it was estimated that the average duration of displacement for refugees had lengthened from nine years in the 1980s to 20 years by the mid-2000s (Loescher & Milner, 2011). Our research suggests that, at any one time, two-thirds to 85% of all refugees in the world are in protracted displacement. While more difficult to estimate, protracted displacement among IDPs is also a major phenomenon.

Most refugees and IDPs living in protracted exile have little or no prospect of achieving a durable solution – that is, of returning to their homes, integrating with full rights in their place of exile or settling elsewhere. With major new displacement crises in the Middle East as a result of the war in Syria, continuing conflict and displacement in Africa and longstanding displaced populations in countries such as Colombia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, governments and aid agencies are trying to grapple with this reality. Protracted displacement is today the norm; a quickly resolved displacement crisis is the rare exception.

It is also clear that displacement is increasingly an urban and dispersed phenomenon, with settled camps becoming the exception. The International Rescue Committee, for example, reports that ‘over half the world’s refugees now live in large towns and cities’ (International Rescue Committee, n.d.), a figure consistent with our own estimates that about six in ten refugees are living in urban areas. The UN Special Rapporteur notes that most IDPs are outside identifiable camps or settlements and instead live dispersed in a variety of urban, rural or remote settings – a factor that contributes to their ‘invisibility’ when it comes to efforts to assist and protect them (United Nations, 2011).

A patchwork of humanitarian interventions helps meet the basic needs of some displaced people, in camp situations and in urban areas. Far more are struggling in their place of exile with little or no assistance, and subject to legal restrictions and protection threats that constrain their ability to build sustainable livelihoods for their families. Besides suffering the indignities and material hardship of exile, people in protracted displacement struggle to improve their economic lot or contribute to the development of their host communities or countries. Host countries and communities incur real and perceived costs that in turn result in policies that push solutions for displaced populations further away and incur even greater costs. International donors and aid agencies struggle to keep afloat expensive, open-ended humanitarian assistance packages that offer slim prospects for the longer-term well-being of displaced people.

For many years, aid agencies, researchers, advocates for displaced people and refugees and IDPs themselves have all called for investments in self-reliance and livelihoods as an important step towards overcoming the costly inadequacies of the present aid regime. Despite the great deal of writing that has been done on the subject, there has been no systematic examination of the evidence on the effectiveness and impact of actual self-reliance and livelihood interventions. This paper aims to help fill that gap, first by drawing a snapshot of global protracted displacement and then by exploring how aid agencies and governments have contributed to sustainable livelihoods among the long-term displaced.

Section 1 discusses the dimensions and characteristics of global protracted displacement and the extent of international resources directed towards the problem. Section 2 summarises the state of evidence uncovered in a comprehensive literature review. Section 3 reviews the literature on self-reliance and livelihood investments, analyses the theories of change underpinning those investments and suggests some possible future directions, based on the limited evidence available. Section 4 proposes a typology for understanding the opportunities and challenges in supporting self-reliance and livelihood activities in specific situations of protracted displacement. The findings of the paper are also drawn from four country case studies, in Sudan/Darfur, Colombia (IDPs), Uganda and Jordan (refugees).

As discussed in Section 2, the study team found the evidence base for self-reliance and livelihood assistance for protracted displacement thin. Furthermore, the
number and diversity of protracted displacement settings, encompassing both IDPs and refugees – some counted or registered, others not – limits the value of generalisations. A number of studies have provided useful insights about specific situations of protracted displacement. More of this kind of detailed analytical work is needed to better understand and find ways to contribute concretely to self-reliance and livelihoods amongst the protracted displaced. In sifting through the mostly anecdotal evidence that is available, the study team has tried to avoid simplified generalisations and instead to convey patterns in approach and execution that we hope will contribute to finding solutions.