Protracted Displacement and Refugee Compacts

With protracted displacement now widely regarded as the "new normal," humanitarian-development partnerships must be forged.

Productive discussions about reforming the current forced displacement regime must be cognizant of the fact that protracted displacement has firmly established itself as the new norm, presenting a unique set of challenges for policymakers and humanitarian organizations alike. A working paper published by the World Bank in 2016 indicates that refugees now spend an average of 10 years away from their homes, and perhaps even more striking, this average increases to 21 years for refugees displaced more than five years. The paper concludes that appropriate responses to forced displacement crises necessarily vary depending upon the estimated length of displacement. In keeping with the "self-reliance and local integration" approach largely advocated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), humanitarian aid alone may suffice for relatively short crises, but in situations that generate protracted displacement, collaboration with development actors becomes necessary. Refugee compacts—partnerships forged between host countries, humanitarian and development agencies, the private sector, and civil society—are similarly championed by the Center for Global Development (CGD) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The United States must leverage its position of prominence in the international community to promote sustainable humanitarian-development partnerships and financing initiatives in the low- and middle-income countries that host the vast majority of the world’s refugees.

Presently, the global forced displacement regime relies heavily upon the efforts of humanitarian organizations such as the UNHCR, with no clearly defined or widely recognized framework for engaging actors from the development realm. This status quo proves especially problematic in responding to long-term crises, where refugees may be displaced indefinitely. In its own reports, the UNHCR acknowledges that it "does not have the resources to provide beyond basic needs in such protracted stays." Though the UNHCR may possess considerable expertise in safeguarding the legal rights of refugees and coordinating the deliverance of aid in short-term situations, "economic empowerment and development work is [traditionally] left to other specialized agencies and national development plans, yet these agencies do not generally include refugees in their work." As a result, refugees are all too often left without any viable source of sustained income, and are accordingly "trapped" in lengthy camp stays. Aside from exacerbating the various problems refugee settlements have unfortunately come to be associated with, such as issues of food security, irrigation, poverty, theft, and violence, the protracted displacement of refugees in camp-like settings can prove more financially and politically costly than measures designed to encourage self-reliance and local integration. Thus, formalized partnerships between humanitarian organizations, development agencies, host countries, and relevant actors from both the private sector and civil society represent a promising and highly achievable means of attaining improved prospects for refugees and the communities that host them.