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Three reasons to put conflict-sensitivity at the heart of refugee assistance

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Large-scale refugee crises are today becoming an all-too-familiar story, and an increasing challenge for the international community.

Jo Robinson

The UNHCR estimates that, at the end of 2016, 22.5 million people had sought safety across international borders worldwide — the highest number recorded in the seven decades of the UN agency’s history.

The most recent crisis to make international headlines is the huge influx of minority Muslim groups from Northern Rakhine fleeing as refugees from Myanmar into Bangladesh and Thailand. But there are also now more than 3 million Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, more than 1 million displaced South Sudanese in Northern Uganda and of course Europe has seen its own huge influx of refugees, including many from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The common theme underlying all these mass movements of people? Conflict.

Whether an armed struggle between state and non-state armed actors or persecution of a particular ethnic or religious group, conflict is the key driver of many of today’s most significant refugee crises. Conflict can also be an outcome of refugee movements, as host communities, often already impoverished, fear refugees may bring physical and economic insecurity to their lives.

Given the intersection of conflict and forced displacement and the upsurge in global refugee numbers, there has been a lot of emphasis internationally dedicated to highlighting solidarity with refugees and migrants and showcasing the shared benefits of migration. For the Conflict, Security and Violence team at OPM, understanding the complex connections between conflict and forced displacement is vital. Evidence from a recent evaluation the team conducted of humanitarian assistance provided by the Department for International Development (DFID) to Myanmar refugees in Thailand and internally displaced people in eastern Myanmar is pertinent. It demonstrates that conflict-sensitive programming — which uses conflict analysis to understand and assesses both the conflict in the refugees’ home country and the local context in the host country — must be integrated into humanitarian assistance to refugees to ensure effectiveness.

Here are three reasons why it is essential to put conflict-sensitivity at the heart of humanitarian relief efforts.

1) To avoid conflict spill-over and create space for conflict resolution in refugee camps.

Conflict is rarely straightforward, often involving a complex intersection of different factors and layers of dispute. Rather than two distinct sides, there is usually a host of different groups with different sets of grievances. In practice, this means that those seeking refuge may come from a wide variety of these groups, and may not always perceive themselves to have common ground, or may even identify as being in opposition to one another. Camps can become home for people from different groups who may not speak the same language or share the same cultural norms and who may have opposing sets of interests. Without a thorough understanding of these differences by the agencies involved, there is a real danger of the conflict spilling over into camps, and into the host country more widely. As well as putting the lives of refugees in danger, this can create heightened security concerns to the extent that aid delivery is hampered. This situation however also presents an opportunity to begin the important work of conflict resolution and peacebuilding through carefully planned interventions.

2) To ensure the positive involvement of host communities and support the long-term process of integration.

Many countries and communities receiving these massive numbers of refugees, often in a short time period, are resource-constrained themselves. Our evaluation in Myanmar found that for many, life inside the camps was considerably better than outside, particularly in terms of education and health care provision, and this disparity can be a source of considerable frustration for host communities.

This frustration can be exacerbated by the fact that refugees are often unable to return home for some considerable time. UNHCR estimates that, on average, people fleeing conflict and disaster are displaced for 17 years. Despite the debate over the accuracy of this figure, it highlights a sad reality — becoming a refugee is rarely only for the short term.

The combination of these factors means that although there is often a reluctance to discuss integration in the early stages of a refugee crisis, long-term thinking really matters in these situations. Camp populations can fluctuate considerably and, as was the case in Myanmar, people often build livelihoods both inside and outside of the camps.

Supporting integration and the positive involvement of host communities is therefore vital to ensuring relations between these groups are not strained, and to minimise the risk of conflict. This can include supporting mutually beneficial access to essential services; improving these for both host communities and refugees, and encouraging economic interdependence — through support for projects which encourage refugee and host collaboration. Crucially, as was highlighted in our evaluation in Myanmar, this involves ensuring political momentum and buy-in from the host country government to provide ongoing support to, and establish durable solutions for, refugees.

3) To understand the complexities of relocation or returning home for refugees

While realism about the length of time refugees are likely to remain in their host communities is needed, there should also be support provided for voluntary return when the time is right. Here, a detailed understanding of the context in the refugees’ home country (or countries) is vital. It allows agencies to capitalise on windows of opportunity for return, and provide tailored support for that process. In Myanmar for instance, land is a particularly sensitive issue and a key consideration in determining timing and possible areas for return. The project we evaluated in Myanmar sought to address this by providing sub-grants to local partners to support land titling and natural resources management in Kayin State in Myanmar, with the aim of supporting positive and sustainable return.

This is also crucial for managing long-term expectations. It is an unfortunate reality that there are simply too many crises like these for the donor community to fund them all to the level required. When a new crisis takes hold where the level of humanitarian need is higher, it can result in other crises facing significant resource constraints. This was something we observed in Myanmar (the evaluation was conducted prior to the latest upsurge in refugee numbers in Bangladesh), where there was a local perception that aid levels were declining. Should resource constraints result in camp closures, considering the implications for meeting the needs of camp populations who relocate is vital. A thorough understanding of the security situation in areas of relocation will support local and international partners to continue to be able to reach refugee communities, and understanding the complex conflict risks associated with unplanned return is vital for mitigating further conflict.

Jo Robinson is a consultant in Conflict, Security and Violence portfolio at Oxford Policy Management, with specialist knowledge of conflict-resolution and peacebuilding, and specific focus on conflict-sensitive development, good governance and conflict-sensitive business practice.

Photo credit: ForeignOffice, CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr