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UN Summit Event Highlights Importance of Refugee Self-Reliance

By: Helen Greene


Trickle Up


On September 19, 2016, world leaders convened for the first United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants. At events throughout the day, the need to provide economic empowerment to refugees was highlighted by UN agencies, government officials, civil society organizations, and private sector leaders.

“Refugees deserve sustainable livelihoods. That is why I’m speaking out for their right to access land and financial services” – Ban Ki Moon, United Nations Secretary General

At a high-level event organized by the Permanent Missions of Denmark, Jordan, and Uganda, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the World Food Programme (WFP), Trickle Up was represented by Janet Heisey, Director of Technical and Strategic Alliances. The event focused on the importance of supporting livelihoods programs for refugees, recognizing that self-reliance is the best way to ensure food security and better nutrition for refugee families in protracted situations.

The event moderator was journalist and refugee Veronica Pedrosa, who shared her story of fleeing the Philippines to the United Kingdom and reminded the attendees that refugees did not choose their circumstances: “Of all the refugees I’ve met or displaced people, not a single one wanted to be a refugee, wanted to be in a camp.” Furthermore, her own success as a prominent journalist is just one example of how refugees can overcome their circumstances to achieve success and improve their communities, given the right support. “I am living proof of the unlimited possibilities for refugees and migrants to contribute to a better world for all,” she said.

“We need to make refugees more self-reliant. Refugees must have access to education and they need to develop their skills through training and work. They need to be able to contribute to their host communities.” – Christian Jansen, Danish Foreign Minister

Ministers from Denmark, Uganda, and Jordan all reiterated the need to help refugees attain self-reliance in their host communities – something that Trickle Up is working with UNHCR to achieve. Hilary Onek, the Ugandan Minister for Relief, Disaster Preparedness, and Refugees, described their unique approach to resettling and providing services for refugees, which has led some to call Uganda the best place in the world to be a refugee. This approach centers on the belief that “refugees are human resources that can be deployed to boost production and increase wealth, wherever they are,” according to Onek.

A recent study supports this theory. Alexander Betts of the University of Oxford presented data from his research on refugees in Uganda, which shows that refugees can contribute to the economy of their host countries and even be sources of job creation. “In Kampala, 21% of refugees run a business that employs at least 1 other person, and of those they employ, 40% are Ugandan nationals. In other words, given the opportunity, refugees are creating jobs for citizens,” Betts reported.

With the need clear and the solutions varied, the Jordanian Ambassador Dr. Sima Sami Bahous asked, “What are the tools that are going to help both the refugees and host communities to continue to sustain their livelihoods, to continue to become self-reliant, and to continue to have the education and the health support that are needed?” We’d like to venture one answer: the Graduation Approach. Since 2013, Trickle Up has been working with UNHCR to help refugees build sustainable livelihoods and connect to others living in extreme poverty in their host communities to build social support networks. We are currently working with existing UNHCR projects in five countries to incorporate the Graduation Approach into their work with refugees as a way to help refugee families increase their self-reliance, food security, and resilience.

This type of partnership requires UNHCR to expand from its traditional role as a humanitarian aid provider into development work, a theme that loomed large in the panel’s discussion as well. Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director of the World Food Programme, recognized this shift by saying, “We know that we must move beyond the traditional humanitarian assistance model of just providing assistance. We need to move beyond just saving lives to being in the business of changing lives.”

“We have to rethink the way we plan and implement humanitarian assistance” – Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

At the end of the event, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon arrived with an important reminder of the impact of our work to help refugees, the work that UNHCR has been doing for decades. “I myself was one of those people,” he said. “When I was 6 years old, as you may know Korean War broke out in 1950, and I had to flee my hometown.” He recalled his grandfather and father struggling to find enough food for them to eat, and he remembers when the UN arrived with provisions. He remembers the abundance of clothes, food, and even toys provided because “there was only one war at the time, while there are 17 wars taking place now producing 65 million refugees.” Even though today UNHCR’s resources are stretched to provide for the millions of refugees around the world, Ban Ki Moon promises that the United Nations isn’t giving up on refugee children just like him.

“When I went to Zaatari camp and Dadaab and elsewhere, I told them that when I was you, United Nations was with me so that’s why I’m with you now. Don’t worry, do not lose hope.” – Ban Ki Moon, United Nations Secretary General