The importance of social considerations (articulated varyingly as social capital, networks, relations, inclusion and cohesion) is gaining traction in displacement settings.
Within academic circles, for example, there is growing consensus that social networks may help unlock protracted displacement and foster integration (see Chatty and Mansour, 2011; Wilson et al., 2021 Etzold and Fechter, 2022; Jacobs et al., 2022). And, within policy and practice, social cohesion programming is becoming a top priority for aid actors and governments involved in refugee responses – as evidenced by the rapid rise in social cohesion spending.
This raises the question – what is the connection between social cohesion and local integration? And to what extent do social relations contribute to durable solutions?
A ‘slippery slope’ towards local integration?
In countries like Tanzania, where the policy priority is return and repatriation (not local integration), strengthening refugee–host relations can be viewed by governments as a risk that encourages refugees to stay, rather than return home – as articulated by a Tanzanian respondent:
Having good relations between refugees and host communities is among the factors that encourage refugees to remain. Treating them harshly, and setting unreasonable bans and restrictions can influence the outcome of durable solutions.
Indeed, if social cohesion is a ‘slippery slope’ towards local integration, social strains or the absence of social relations can, by extension, be seen as a tool for encouraging refugees to return home. In practice, this means removing incentives to stay by limiting socioeconomic opportunities to the bare minimum.
An example of this is encampment. Not only are Burundian and Congolese refugees restricted to different camp zones in western Tanzania, but they are not allowed to leave the camp without a permit, and nor are hosts allowed to enter without one. By limiting opportunities for refugees and hosts to mix and interact in a meaningful way, social relations rarely progress beyond a superficial level.
Policymakers in the Global North arguably see the relationship between social cohesion and local integration along similar lines – albeit with opposite policy objectives. While Tanzania (and many other hosting governments) want refugees to return or resettle elsewhere, governments in the Global North would rather they stay where they are. Indeed, one explanation behind the growth in social cohesion spending is the assumption that refugees who settle ‘peacefully’ with their hosts in the regions they come from (thanks to improved social relations) will be less likely to move onwards to the Global North.
Social cohesion is an important means to many ends for refugees and hosts. Our research from Tanzania found that good social relations can unlock economic and business opportunities and function as an important social safety net in the absence of state social services. Good social relations can also cultivate peace (physical safety and peace of mind) for communities that have fled conflict.
In spite of these positives, our research challenges the logic that social cohesion offers a clear route to local integration. Or, viewed the other way, that social tensions make refugees more likely to return home.
Some Burundian and Congolese refugees did relate their decision to remain in Tanzania to the community of friends and contacts built over years. For most, however, social dynamics were part of a much wider puzzle of immediate practical and legal considerations, such as land, safety, food security, jobs and livelihoods.
Tanzanian hosts and Burundian refugees who arrived during the 1970s enjoy good social relations. Nevertheless, a lack of refugee status limits their rights to move and work, access state services, open a bank account, establish a business, and even register a SIM card. Without legal citizenship, social cohesion doesn’t amount to meaningful local integration.
What is more, the factors influencing returns are often less about social dynamics in Tanzania than what is happening elsewhere in their countries of origin. In the words of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) respondent, ‘I don’t think social cohesion influences their decision. Much depends on the situation back in Burundi or the DRC.’ Similar findings have been documented in Lebanon.
A halfway house to a durable solution
Social cohesion is neither a ‘pathway to citizenship [nor is it a] durable solution’. By sidestepping the legal implications of local integration, social cohesion can become something of a halfway house, where questions around legal rights, status and access to services are glossed over or ignored altogether.
This raises some uncomfortable policy implications. A ‘halfway house’ can suit the political agendas of hosting governments reluctant to allow more than temporary protection to refugees. While the government of Lebanon, for example, has strongly rejected any form of local integration of Syrian refugees, social cohesion has been articulated as a strategic priority in regional and national responses. In promoting social cohesion in this way, the priority for most Lebanese political and religious leaders is ensuring internal stability and security rather than meeting the needs of Syrian refugees.
But there are alternatives to the halfway house. In 2007, the Tanzanian government made an unprecedented offer of citizenship to longstanding Burundian refugees (albeit a relatively small proportion of the wider refugee population). Despite local integration being one of the three ‘durable solutions’ available to refugees, only a handful of governments have made such an offer to refugees who cannot or do not wish to repatriate. The offer of naturalisation (while by no means perfect) was an important first step towards genuine integration that good refugee–host relations alone hadn’t been able to provide.
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