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Emergency aid is not enough: five ways to actually help refugees

Written by Irina Mosel, Tania Cheung

​More humanitarian aid for beleaguered Syrian refugees, like the £40 million for emergency food aid pledged by the British Government, is not something to sniff at. The issue is what people like UK Prime Minister David Cameron claim it will achieve. Speaking before the refugee talks in Brussels last week, Cameron said:

‘We must make sure that people in refugee camps are properly fed and looked after, not least to help them but also to stop people wanting to make or thinking of making this very, very difficult and very dangerous journey to Europe.’

If Cameron thinks that aid is all it takes to stop refugees from fleeing conflict, insecurity and a life without hope and opportunity, it’s time for a reality check.

Refugees need more than handouts. Emergency aid is always important and necessary, but most refugees do not decide to embark on a risky boat journey just because they don’t have food or shelter. They decide to leave because, after years of conflict and displacement, they can’t see a future for themselves or their children without education, adequate healthcare, proper shelter and the ability to make a living and fulfil their aspirations in the long term.

Instead of just giving emergency aid, governments and aid agencies must make sure that humanitarian assistance is tied into longer-term development assistance and that national policies are tailored to addressing their needs.

Here are five ways to really help refugees – and even help them thrive:

1. Revise laws and policies that prevent refugees from working.

Evidence shows that, rather than being a burden, refugees can help boost local economies if they’re given the chance to work. But if governments put in place policies that restrict working, they shouldn’t be surprised when refugees become a burden on welfare systems. Providing work permits and allowing for freedom of movement makes refugees less dependent on governments and NGOs and enables them to provide for themselves and their families.

2. Give realistic job support.

Too many vocational training programmes set people up for a job market that doesn’t exist. Training programmes should look at the skills the job market needs, what job opportunities exist and how refugees can be linked to markets.

3. Improve access to services and social safety nets for refugees and host communities.

Take education for example. Half of school-age Syrian refugee children – 700,000 children – are out of school, prompting some to warn of a ‘lost generation’. Lack of education opportunities for Syrian refugee children has led to increases in child labour and early marriage for girls. Many refugees see education as a basic requirement to becoming self-reliant. Parents around the world often prioritise their children’s needs over their own; refugee parents are no different.

4. Integrate aid programmes with local markets.

For example, given that at least two-thirds of all refugees live in cities and towns, not camps, efforts to address housing needs must consider local housing markets. In Lebanon and Jordan, credit for housing construction is expensive and houses are often left unfinished. The Norwegian Refugee Council offered homeowners finance to finish their houses if they allowed refugee families to stay in the house rent-free for 12-18 months. This not only increased the availability of housing, but also encouraged interaction between refugees and the host community.

5. Talk to refugees.

Find out what refugees’ skills and aspirations are, and what barriers prevent them from being achieved. We’re in the middle of a study seeking to do just that, which has revealed that refugees are not operating in the way that traditional aid programmes expect. Only by finding out what is preventing refugees from thriving can we really improve their living conditions.

We’ve seen how important more sustainable programming is in crisis after crisis. Fewer than one in 40 refugee crises are resolved within three years, and most last for decades. The sooner governments and aid agencies start to address refugees’ needs with more sustainable programmes, the sooner they can get back on their feet. This is better for refugees – and it can also help the countries they’re living in, whether in the Middle East or in Europe.

But funding better aid programming abroad should not let the UK or other countries off the hook in terms of their obligations to resettle refugees and improve the services and opportunities available to them. 

With a crisis of this scale, we need more than the bare minimum from governments, including the UK. Taking in just 0.5% of all Syrian refugees, and thinking that the UK’s done its bit by sending over emergency food aid, is just not good enough.

This blog draws on findings from ‘Protracted displacement: uncertain pathways to self-reliance’, published today, which explores how to support sustainable livelihoods and self-reliance strategies for refugees and internally displaced people.