Refugees as a Burden: Dispelling the Common Myth



This article originally appeared on the Humanitarian Coalition’s blog.


RefugeesThe global number of refugees is at more than 15.4 million and the world currently faces the most serious refugee crisis in 20 years, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres.

Over 10 million people have been refugees for more than five years, and the average length of exile is almost 20 years. This means that refugees are not being reintegrated but are becoming trapped in a cycle that does not allow them to return to their native countries or make a home in a new one. A new study from Oxford University and the Humanitarian Innovation Project (HIP) has analyzed existing approaches for assisting refugees. They came up with recommendations for a new way of thinking about refugees and their needs.

In 2013, Oxford University researchers conducted the study that focused on refugees in three regions of Uganda: urban Kampala, and the rural Nakivale and Kyangwali refugee settlements. Uganda was chosen because it is a country where 387,000 refugees currently live, and they have greater freedom of movement and employment than those in many other host countries. In particular, the study aimed to debunk a few common myths about refugees: that they are economically isolated, that they are a burden on their host states, that they are technologically illiterate, and that they are entirely dependent on humanitarian assistance. In fact, the study showed that refugees in Uganda have higher usage of the internet than the general population; 51% of refugees in urban areas and 11% in rural areas had access. Moreover, 96% of refugees in urban centers and 71% in rural areas used mobile phones.


A New Model


refugees2In all, the researchers conducted surveys of 1,593 refugees, in addition to local government officials and business representatives. The results showed that refugees in Uganda participate actively in local markets, import products from other countries, and in some cases hire native Ugandans to work in their businesses. The historical model of responding to refugee crises usually involves placing restrictions upon displaced persons, forcing them to rely on assistance led by a donor-state. The study concluded that this model may ultimately lead to unsustainability and dependency over the long term. The case of Uganda shows that, contrary to popular assumptions, refugees can find opportunities to support themselves and their families to a much greater degree when they are allowed to work and live outside of camps.

The researchers acknowledge that this study is specific to Uganda’s context, in part because the local population is generally tolerant of refugees and willing do business with them. However, it is certain that allowing refugees in Uganda to have greater freedoms has had a positive impact on their livelihood. The study demonstrates that it is important to recognize that refugees have resources and abilities and are able to help themselves. Refugees could create opportunities for economic benefit instead of becoming a burden on host countries. Many countries fear that giving refugees more freedoms will encourage them to stay and remain a burden over the long term. However, the results of this study suggest that reintegration to home countries could become more likely because refugees have developed skills and remained economically active instead of relying on handouts to survive. Recognizing the abilities of displaced persons may truly mean a positive benefit for home countries, host countries, and refugees themselves.

For more information, read the original study here, see an infographic about refugee economies here, and listen to a NPR Planet Money podcast here.


Valerie Busch

Valerie Busch

Valerie is a development professional based in Toronto, Ontario.

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