Bringing Development to Fore of Refugee Response

A Syrian refugee child at the Oncupinar camp. Kilis, Turkey, June 20, 2016 (Emrah Gurel/AP Photo)

Displaced people are occupying an increasingly central role on the world stage. Conflict and persecution have led to the highest number of refugees, internally displaced persons, and asylum seekers ever recorded. Moreover, approximately two-thirds of refugees are trapped in protracted exile, lasting five years or longer.

Kilis, a Turkish border city of 90,000 people that has seen an influx of 130,000 Syrians over the past five years, offers a snapshot of the challenges that arise from this new normal. Most of the refugees are living outside camps, side by side with local populations. Despite a well-planned and executed humanitarian response—the city administration was nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to host refugees—few of the newcomers have been able to access education and employment opportunities because of their temporary status. They have been largely excluded from national development processes. As the resources of the Turkish and local governments have diminished, the refugees have been left dependent on humanitarian assistance. The host community has been affected, too: The presence of refugees has taxed local infrastructure and services such as waste and water management capacities and has limited the availability of some public spaces.

The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, which was adopted in 2015 by United Nations member states, calls for “leaving no one behind” in development processes. At the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May, many state leaders, senior UN officials, heads of humanitarian and development agencies, and civil society and private sector representatives banded together to advocate that development perspectives be adopted in response to protracted humanitarian crises, in order to fulfill the 2030 Agenda’s inclusive, people-centered vision. The same commitments were echoed at the UN General Assembly in September, particularly during the High-Level Summit on Refugees and Migrants. Now, it is time to take action to turn these rhetorical commitments into reality.

There are a number of ways that humanitarian and development assistance in prolonged situations like the one in Kilis can be linked. The first step is mostly psychological and requires a change to the linear way in which many global actors perceive their roles in the wake of conflicts and disasters. Traditionally, the idea has been that humanitarian aid is the best way to handle emergency response, and development actors take over in the aftermath, together with national governments. Protracted displacement, however, requires that these two sectors appreciate the possibilities for joint action, in which each takes on roles that speak to strengths derived from their institutional structures and mandates. Already, there are examples of such cooperation. In Somalia, for example, a global compact has allowed humanitarian and development actors to address urgent needs while building resilience into early action.

Second, different actors on the ground, including relevant sections of the UN system, can work together to develop context-specific analysis and plans, which will help them to identify and mitigate some of the risks and challenges posed by ongoing conflict and displacement. Doing this will entail significant investment in strategic analysis and coordination efforts on the ground. This has begun to happen in countries neighboring Syria. In Jordan, for example, the government-led 2016–2018 Response Plan for the Syria Crisis, which brought together a broad cross-section of actors, helped to clarify key vulnerabilities in refugee and host communities. In turn, the plan allowed different agencies to prioritize the immediate needs of Syrian refugees, such as food, shelter, and health, while looking ahead to the provision of long-term benefits such as education for children and jobs for adults.

Third, in their response efforts, global actors should seek to reinforce, rather than replace, national and local systems. This prescription applies to areas like registration and data management, health and education systems, social protection networks, and private sector development, but is not only linked to capacity building. National actors should also change the ways they approach displacement in prolonged situations, aiming to move from humanitarian responses to meeting the longer-term needs of host and refugee communities. For instance, faced with increasing difficulty to adequately respond to the displacement of Syrians and others, Turkey has had to devote attention on creating livelihoods for the displaced, although this is still in the initial stages. Formulating incentives that encourage host governments to consider more permanent solutions for the displaced, particularly their inclusion in development processes, is equally important.

The fourth recommendation relates to financing. Traditionally, funding for humanitarian aid has been separate from budgets for development and has been limited to grant-based funding. But this model isn’t sustainable in protracted displacement situations, where donor funding tends to diminish as displacement drags on and national and local governments are left struggling to keep up with the needs of refugee populations. In situations like this, more innovative approaches, like bond guarantees, public-private partnerships, and financing for private-sector investment, could prove beneficial.

Finally, the development and humanitarian communities should find ways to connect with developments in urban policy. The traditional perception of refugees is that they live in camps in remote border areas. This is no longer the trend: Today, more than half of all refugees are found in cities. In Turkey, for instance, approximately 300,000 Syrians live in official refugee camps, compared with 2.5 million in host communities. Their presence in the country’s cities presents a different set of challenges and opportunities, and ones that need to be better understood. The recent launch of the Global Alliance for Urban Crises, which aims to link urbanism and displacement in order to foster sustainable development for refugees in cities, is a promising development. So are the messages emerging from the October 2016 UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development—HABITAT III—in Ecuador. The New Urban Agenda adopted at this meeting underscored the importance of generating investments in communities that are most vulnerable to disasters affected by recurrent and protracted humanitarian crises and ensuring that aid also flows to affected persons and host communities to prevent regression in their development achievements.

Taking these steps won’t solve all of the issues refugees and host communities face in long-term displacement situations. But they would work toward empowering the displaced and meeting their needs in sustainable and manageable ways, while also benefiting host communities. They would help to move towards meeting the ambitious objective of the Sustainable Development Agenda: to leave no one behind.

Gizem Sucuoglu is a Senior Program Manager at the Center on International Cooperation.