UNSW UNSW Business School UNSW Business School

When refugees bring real benefits to host communities

November 15, 2017

​  A remote Kenyan camp delivers social and economic advantages

Refugees account for 22.5 million of the estimated 65.6 million displaced people worldwide, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 

These numbers continue to grow, in no small part due to ongoing crises in Syria and South Sudan and more recently the flight of the Rohingya people from Myanmar.

"When we think about refugees in Australia, the US or Europe, we have images of boat people fleeing regions," says Sarah Walker, a lecturer in the school of economics at UNSW Business School.

"What many people don't understand is that 84% of all displaced people actually go somewhere local, quite often to a neighbouring country that may be as poor or poorer than the place they have come from."

Since less than 1% of these refugees are resettled through formal channels to third-party countries outside of the regions where they have fled, the search is now on to find alternative solutions for those affected. 

Walker is a co-author of a recent study of Kakuma – one of the world's largest and longest-running refugee camps – in arid north-western Kenya. The research reveals some eye-opening long-term positives that refugees have brought to the host region of Turkana.

These benefits include increased employment opportunities, the arrival of medical centres and schools, higher prices for locally produced foods, and the potential for agriculture in a pastoral economy where herding livestock largely for personal consumption had been the dominant activity.

In fact, refugees increase Turkana's gross regional product by 3% and its total employment by 3%.

'The Turkana people felt they were better off in Kakuma because of the refugee camp'


'A city out of nothing'

Kakuma, which means "nowhere" in Swahili, has come a long way since it was established in 1992. Back then, it had a population of just 5000 people – its first residents being 'the lost boys' of South Sudan who fled their country's internal conflict.

Walking thousands of kilometres across dangerous terrain, they arrived in Kenya via Ethiopia, where their numbers had diminished from 20,000. Since that time, the camp has had a fluctuating population with influxes from South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, the Congo and Burundi, and has become a regional economic centre.

"It's a city out of nothing," says Walker.

Yet she and co-author Anne Bartlett, an associate professor in the school of humanities and languages at UNSW, describe a vibrant community that operates the main market for the region, where not only refugees but the majority of local town's folk and aid workers shop, have clothes tailored and eat at restaurants offering a range of cuisines. Restricted from leaving the camp, the refugees run businesses and often hire locals.

It's not the typical newsreel picture of aid-dependant encamped refugees that people in developed economies see, but it's the everyday reality for residents of the Kakuma camp, some of whom have been living there for more than a generation.

Walker and Bartlett elaborate on these findings in Do Refugee Camps Help or Hurt Hosts? A study of Kakuma, Kenya, published with co-authors Jennifer Alix-Garcia from Oregon State University, and the World Bank's Harun Onder and Apurva Sanghi,

It shows that though Kenya has a rather unusual encampment policy which places refugees in desolate settings far from population centres, there are long-term positive effects of refugees coming to the Turkana area.

The study, which was carried out in 2015 in what is Kenya's poorest county, involved enlisting and training locals to help conduct household surveys for the study.

A challenge for the researchers was the scarcity of data on the Turkana region. Beyond their household survey data, the team combined data collected by the Kenyan government, the World Food Program and others, along with night-time lights data which measures luminosity captured by satellite as a proxy for economic development – it showed consumption within 10km of the camp to be 25% higher than in regions further away.

Regional economy

Emerging from the study is an important exploration of what happens in protracted displacement situations, a field of keen interest to the World Bank and UNHCR as they seek solutions to the growing refugee crises.

Drawing on the Kakuma camp's 25-year history, the researchers not only show  economic improvement in Turkana, but highlight how economic activity in and around the camp attracts migration from across the country.

"The Turkana people felt they were better off in Kakuma because of the refugee camp," says Walker.

"One reason is their ability to sell cattle and crops for higher prices, as they feed the demand for meat and other foods from the refugees."

The research team found refugees tend to sell the oil and flour delivered in UNHCR aid packages because they are not typically part of their diets.

While many run businesses or work for wages in the camps, refugees also receive funds from family members who now live in other countries via banks operating around the camp. They may be physically isolated, but technology enables integration with the rest of the world, including transactions in Kenyan shillings.

So what if Kakuma, which has grown to comprise four camps or 'towns', were to be closed down?

For an answer, the researchers looked to Lokichoggio, close to the Kenya-Sudan border, where a large UN aid operation, Operation Lifeline Sudan, was shut down in 2011. It's where the lost boys were first encamped in 1991, before being moved south to Kakuma.

'We need to develop these communities rather than just provide small rations as emergency aid'


The impact of shutdowns – when refugees and aid leave – is in focus for the World Bank and the Kenyan government as it considers further closures.

One lesson the researchers gleaned from Lokichoggio post-aid was that agriculture persists.

"Firewood and charcoal collection also were the same in Lokichoggio as they were in Kakuma," notes Walker. "There were fewer people in Lokichoggio earning wages, which we take as a sign that the refugee camp creates demand for low-skilled labour, and when aid leaves the people lose their jobs."

Most significantly, if Kakuma refugee camp were to be shut down it would wipe out the regional economy, says Walker.

Integration strategies

Bartlett, who has researched humanitarian crises in Africa for several decades and chaired the UN hearing on the Darfur crisis in 2004, says the study points to the urgency for rethinking approaches to the treatment of refugees.

"We need to make the impact more helpful, and leverage economies to give people a chance at dignity, so they are not receiving handouts from the aid community for 25 years," she says.

Walker notes "the need to design successful integration strategies because these crises aren't going anywhere and the places receiving most refugees are poor developing countries".

The pressing questions, says Bartlett, concern how to help host communities who receive refugees and, crucially:

"Rather than locking people in camps – so-called humanitarian containment – how do we create better life chances for these people? We need to develop these communities rather than just provide small rations as emergency aid. Let's think about bridging the humanitarian-development divide and giving them some infrastructure, education and vocational training and allowing them to stand on their own two feet."

According to Bartlett, we need to consider ways to create self-sufficient communities from the outset.

"Changing approaches to give people a chance to improve their lives in the countries where they first land would stop some of the precarious migration flows that are now seeing people washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean," she ventures.

And, it's a matter of high relevance to Australia, the intended destination of thousands of asylum-seekers who have risked – and many who have lost – their lives attempting to cross by sea from Indonesia.

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