Unlock the human potential of refugees and let them contribute to their host communities
Helen Clark and Filippo Grandi say the world is facing a crisis of displacement but refugees are a rich source of human capital that we are failing to cultivate
The world has entered an era in which people are being displaced at an unprecedented rate. In 2014, conflict and persecution forced 42,500 people a day to flee their homes, nearly quadruple the number from 2010. Almost 60 million people are now forcibly displaced – a crisis unmatched since the second world war.
This is unacceptable, but it is not inevitable. In 1945, the world responded to the deadliest conflict in human history by establishing the United Nations. Today, the world should respond to this monumental upheaval by giving people the tools they need to rebuild their lives. The path forward begins with the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, which the UN, affirming a pledge to “leave no one behind” in the fight against inequality, adopted unanimously last September.
Our approach to displacement relies mainly on humanitarian aid, which provides rapid, lifesaving relief while the search for a permanent solution is under way. But solutions are proving more elusive than ever. Just 1 per cent of refugees were able to return home in 2014. The vast majority of those displaced spend years, decades or even entire lifetimes in exile.
Long-term displacement puts profound burdens on people. Refugees often face limits on their ability to work and move freely, making it impossible to provide for their families or contribute to host communities. They live in limbo, with no choice but to rely on aid. Or they are obliged to seek a living in the informal economy, where they risk arrest, sexual exploitation, child labour or other abuses. Fixing this will require political and economic changes that allow the development community to provide more support.
Large-scale displacement strains public resources, even in middle-income countries. Until the world gives more support to host countries and the refugees living there, we can expect to pay ever-larger sums for humanitarian programmes that never end.
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But there is another side to the coin. When displaced people are allowed to develop their skills and pursue their aspirations, they create new opportunities for growth. This is why development agencies must have more flexibility to address new cycles of poverty.
The time has come to discard the clichéd image of refugees as passive recipients of aid. Refugees are entrepreneurs, artists, teachers, engineers and workers of all types. We can no longer afford to ignore so much potential or to sit by while the most vulnerable are pushed to the margins of society.
Helen Clark, administrator of the UN Development Programme, is a former prime minister of New Zealand. Filippo Grandi is UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Copyright: Project Syndicate