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Five things we learnt about displacement in 2022

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Written by Caitlin Sturridge, Jessica Hagen-Zanker, Claire Kumar, Megan Daigle

Hero image description: At Chagni ranch IDP camp UNICEF supported tents are used as shelters for thousands of displaced people. Image credit:UNICEF Ethiopia/2021/Mulugeta Ayene Image license:© UNICEF

Displacement is on the rise. By mid-2022, an estimated 103 million people had been displaced – an increase of more than 15% compared to 2021, and the ‘largest ever increase between years’, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine dominated the headlines. But protracted displacement in overlooked places was also behind these numbers – places like Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Colombia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, among many others.

During 2022, our research covered a wide range of displacement-related topics: inclusion and exclusion, social protection, social cohesion, conflict and climate, narratives and attitudes, and gender in displacement.

Drawing on this body of research, here are five things that we learnt about displacement in 2022.

1. Displacement is about continuity and connection

In the context of climate change, we often hear about a new chapter of displacement – a looming crisis on the horizon that will lead to unprecedented impacts. But is this really a new chapter? Or an extension and escalation of existing practices and trends? Like all people under pressure, displaced people seek out opportunities by building on what they already know and do.

Take mobility, for example. Displacement trends often overlap with existing patterns of migration. This was the case for Afghan internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Herat who regularly split their households across provinces and even countries to find work – following decades of past practice. What does this mean for policy and practice? That freedom of movement remains important during displacement, particularly when it comes to promoting self-reliance. And that we should support displaced people to build on links with the past to strengthen resilience in the present.

IDPs in northern Mozambique drew on prior knowledge and experience to rebuild and diversify their livelihoods in displacement in creative and varied ways – across a mix of farming, fishing, artisanal mining, charcoal production, trading, small business, hairdressing, carpentry and casual labour. While displacement can be paralysing, it can also drive the need to re-establish lives and livelihoods turned upside down.

2. Supporting host communities also helps displaced people

Host communities play a vital (though often overlooked) role in humanitarian responses. The support (shelter, social networks, food, loans) they provide often far surpasses assistance from ‘traditional’ aid actors. But hosts’ ability and willingness to help comes under pressure as displacement becomes protracted.

Aid can also influence social relations between hosts and displaced people. We find that while social protection and humanitarian assistance don’t necessarily affect social cohesion (or, at least, not in the ways intended by donors and governments), perceptions matter. Perceptions not just about who receives social protection and assistance, but also about what kinds of support these provide. While assistance tends not to cause social tensions in the first place, it can aggravate existing tensions. In these scenarios, displaced people can become targets for pent-up resentment, particularly when this is encouraged by high-profile public or political figures.

Including refugees in social protection systems is increasingly promoted by donors as an opportunity for building better social cohesion. But more also needs to be done to support hosts – through complementary development interventions, climate change adaptation strategies, and area-based approaches.

Viewed from these perspectives, we should see displaced people as networked rather than as a ring-fenced and separate group, as part of their local context, and in relation to others around them. This approach reinforces the similarities that connect displaced people with their hosts, who are often similarly vulnerable.

3. Gender roles change in displacement, though not always for the worse

There is a prevalent and simplistic narrative in humanitarian action that displacement makes women and girls vulnerable. While there certainly are gendered harms associated with displacement, changes in gendered norms and roles may also bring about openings and opportunities. Thus, Venezuelan women displaced to Colombia reported taking on more paid work, while men took on comparatively more household chores. Families also seemed to be exercising the right to have fewer children. Such shifts were grounded as much in Venezuela’s profound economic crisis as in displacement. These changes are important for understanding how displacement affects people of all genders differently, but it is unclear whether they will last or prove to be temporary responses to the challenges of life in displacement.

In Pakistan, on the other hand, internally displaced people experienced marked rises in women’s paid economic activities and subsequently their decision-making power in their households, due in no small part to their move from multigenerational family compounds to single-family homes. Men became more engaged husbands and fathers, while girls began attending school in greater numbers. On returning home, we found families taking concrete steps to preserve such changes by choosing single-family accommodation where they could and opening schools for girls.

While displacement influences gendered norms, these norms in turn influence experiences of displacement. In Pakistan’s Punjab province, restrictive notions of ‘honour’ have prevented some women from seeking safety in the wake of recent flooding – even when their lives (and the lives of their children) depend on it. This leaves those women and girls in a precarious situation: flee, with all the risks that it entails, or stay behind and face the hazards of flooding.

4. Narratives have power in shaping views on displacement

Many governments around the world promote hostile narratives about refugees and asylum seekers. Language matters. It establishes a tone from the outset that reinforces particular worldviews. Populist politicians have long used negative imagery and discourse to shape increasingly restrictive anti-immigration agendas.

Negative political narratives have traction, particularly when they link immigration with crime rates to stoke fears around public safety. This is evident in Sweden. A global leader in refugee resettlement, Sweden was historically one of the most positive and open countries in Europe. But public attitudes have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Linking crime to immigration has increasingly been the focus of far-right forces, especially in the run-up to the 2022 elections.

And yet, our research reveals major gaps between political narratives and public attitudes. In contrast to negative political rhetoric, the British are increasingly positive about the impact of immigration over the past two decades, and have among the most progressive attitudes towards immigration in Europe. For example, when given the choice between fairness and deterrence as the most important features of the asylum system, 65% of Britons chose fairness with only 27% choosing deterrence.

5. Restrictive policies have real-life consequences, though not necessarily those intended

In spite of this, policymakers continue to pull up the drawbridges to Fortress Europe. In 2022, we’ve seen the introduction of a raft of increasingly restrictive immigration policies, despite the evidence that these have unclear and contested impacts. A prominent example is the UK’s controversial deal to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, a policy that Denmark is also seeking to adopt.

One-sided and restrictive migration deals that outsource asylum responsibilities to lower-income countries are never going to be the answer. We know that displacement and migration continue to take place regardless of such policies. Forced irregularity just makes journeys more dangerous and expensive. And while such measures don’t tend to stop people from coming, they do have real-life impacts on people affected by displacement.

Our survey of more than 13,000 young adults shows the extent to which they are affected by such measures. In Behsud, Afghanistan, ‘most young adults (83%) know someone who has been deported – or have themselves been deported’. Over half (55%) ‘knew someone who has died on their journey to another country’. And yet, undeterred by this, ‘almost half (46%) expect to leave Afghanistan’ in the next five years.

So what does all of this mean for the year ahead?

If the predictions are right, and displacement continues to rise, then we need a new approach for 2023. We need to move beyond outdated narratives and deterrence-centred policies that do not reflect contemporary realities or provide effective or humane solutions.

Instead, we need to refocus on the lived experiences and future aspirations of those affected by displacement. This includes the men, women and children who see no option but to leave their homes, the communities that host them, and the municipalities and local governments that play an increasingly key role in sustaining them.