Let us begin with two facts: (1) more than 51 million persons are displaced because of conflict and violence in the world today; and (2) the majority of the world’s forced migrants—refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs)—are in protracted situations, with little chance that their displacement will end anytime soon. Taken together, these facts paint a deeply disturbing picture. Millions of persons have not only borne the injuries and costs of being forced from their homes; they continue to suffer those harms, their lives essentially placed on long-term hold.
These are unhappy facts, too, for host and donor states. The vast majority of the world’s forced migrants reside in developing countries, which expect and rely on the international community to help provide assistance to the displaced. This is particularly so for refugees who, unlike IDPs, are not citizens of the states that have provided them asylum. While emergencies may attract a significant amount of funding, support tends to diminish over time. Long-standing situations are perceived to have neither the urgency nor likelihood of resolution that draws heightened donor interest. Funds are disbursed year after year with little enthusiasm, amid beliefs that not much more can, or should, be done.
Viewed with a modicum of perspective, it should seem curious that assistance provided to refugees several decades after their displacement is categorized as “humanitarian” by governments and multilateral international organizations. Humanitarian relief is usually associated with emergency relief—tents, blankets, food, and medical care for those who have been forced from their homes after a cataclysmic event (earthquake, tsunami, civil war, targeted persecution, threatened genocide). As the United Nations (UN) guidance goes, humanitarian relief should give way—in fairly short order—to reconstruction; as the flood waters recede, people should leave their emergency shelters and begin to rebuild their homes and their communities.
The relief-to-development mantra can make sense in cases of natural disaster, when a temporary shock has taken a community off its normal development course. And this logic links to the mot-de-jour: “resilience.” A resilient society is able to withstand shock and begin rebuilding more quickly. But these concepts are more difficult to apply in situations of long-term displacement. Refugee camps and settlements persist in host communities, usually as isolated, unproductive islands sustained largely by the international community—or neglected altogether. Host states are not likely to include refugees in their national development plans, meant for their own citizens, and are not likely to want international funders to divert development dollars to non-nationals. As a result, international assistance to displaced communities continues to be sourced from “humanitarian” baskets no matter how long the displacement continues. A hallmark of such funding is that it usually bypasses host states—although state refugee agencies may receive financial support and host communities may benefit from some local services, such as schools and water, sanitation, and health (WASH) projects. Development funding, meanwhile, is generally bilateral and provided to states according to their development plans.