Creating the space for refugee resilience

Category: Programme updates| Publications

26 Sep 2016


Professor Thea Hilhorst gave her innaugural address at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) on 22 September 2016. This editorial, which is based on that lecture, which is available on-line, forms part of When Disasters Meet Conflict, an NWO VICI-funded research programme

Prof. Thea Hilhorst

Prof. Thea Hilhorst

President Obama recently invited a selected, high-level company of heads of states to garner more support for refugees: pledges for humanitarian assistance, better security for refugees in host societies and more space for employment and development of refugees. Although the meeting appeared to be a ritual with fewer pledges than hoped for, and quite a lot of these consisting of repackaged old commitments or new promises that may be or may not be upheld. The significance of the meeting was partly found in its agenda, that rightly connects questions of refugees, rights and development. Fostering the resilience of refugees requires space to secure their livelihoods and protection.

Building on people’s capacities

There is a new trend going on in humanitarian aid. Emergency assistance was until recently mainly geared to service delivery in camps. Aid was modelled after the  persistent idea that refugees were completely helpless, coupled to the idea that local authorities and service providers massively collapsed in times of crisis, to that assistance had to be come from international agencies. In the last decade, triggered by ongoing criticism, changing conditions on the ground, and evolving technology we are seeing a large turn in the language and practices of humanitarian assistance, which centres on the resilience of crisis-affected populations and societies.

Resilience in disaster situations

This humanitarian turn started in the context of natural disasters. Since the Hyogo Framework for Action was adopted in 2004, national players now take more control of disaster response which is anchored on the recognition of the resilience of people and communities. International aid has increasingly retreated, mentally and physically, from these situations (unless they concern mega-disasters).  This trend reflects changing insights, growing national response capacities for disaster, and it undoubtedly plays a role too that the international community foresees it cannot continue intervening in the fast-growing number of disasters caused by climate change.

Refugees outside of camps

We currently see a similar humanitarian turn in the case of refugees, which is especially highlighted in the neighbouring countries of Syria that are hosting millions of refugees from this war-torn country and the wider region.  It is a remarkable reality that 90% of the refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey live outside of camps. They rent rooms in the cities and try to stay alive by engaging in the informal labour market. Entitlements to humanitarian assistance are not granted on account of being a refugee, but is reserved to refugees that are recognised as particularly vulnerable, often single mothers or people with a serious medical condition. Current technology makes it possible to assist refugees outside of camps. Once a family is listed as eligible for assistance, it is provided with a bank card where the humanitarian agency monthly deposits an allowance. In refugee care, just as in the case of natural disasters, assistance is increasingly being seen as a complement to people’s own efforts to survive. In itself this is a good proposition. It is more dignified, it suits the preference of most refugees who don’t like an idle and isolated camp life, and it saves humanitarian capacity for cases of dire need. Reality, however, often shows another picture.

No entitlements

Not every refugee in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey can register, especially since all three countries closed their border with Syria early this year. Those refugees that have registered find there are very few entitlements attached to this. They can only work illegally – without a work permit or by lack of formal job offers – and no refugee dares to go to the police in case of exploitation or theft. Refugees in current host countries are increasingly part of the global ‘precariat’: people at the bottom of society, who survive by the day and have to navigate the most precarious conditions. No jobs, no social protection. The rights as laid down in the refugee convention of 1951 are far out of reach in practice. Many refugees who cross a border are particularly vulnerable, lacking legal status, employment and street knowledge of their new place, and often facing hostilities from host populations.  Concepts of resilience and self-reliance are wonderful notions, but without a minimum of entitlements to development and justice, the humanitarian turn does not bring about a respectful treatment of crisis-affected populations, but will result instead in a politics of abandonment.

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of humanitarian aid and reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, and a participant in the ODI-led Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium.

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The Governance, Globalization and Social Justice research programme aims to produce internationally leading, socially committed and societally relevant research outcomes on issues of governance from an explicitly social justice perspective. This blog is a forum on which to share and discuss themes and issues which fall within the broad framework of the programme.