Refugee Economies

Explaining variation in economic outcomes for refugees, and identifying opportunities for market-based interventions.

  • Street in Nakivale refugee settlement, Uganda

    Street in Nakivale refugee settlement, Uganda

    Photo by Naohiko Omata

Although  refugees participate in economic activities and markets in their host states, their economic lives are shaped by different institutional contexts that relate to being a refugee.

Despite growing interest in this area, little theory or data exists. By developing a conceptual framework and methodology for exploring ‘Refugee Economies’, we investigate what makes refugees’ economic lives analytically distinctive and explain the factors that lead to variation in economic outcomes for refugees.

Between 2012 and 2015, we carried out a large-scale study on refugees’ economic activities across four sites in Uganda. Following the success of this research, we are now embarking on developing multi-country panel data on refugee economies over different time series through comparative research. The research aims to advance a better understanding of the economic lives of refugees, while informing policy and practice by rethinking refugee assistance. A major output will be a monograph provisionally entitled Refugee Economies: Development and Forced Displacement (under review, Oxford University Press).

Our initial research was published as a report called Refugee Economies: Rethinking Popular Assumptions, which was launched on World Refugee Day 2014. By highlighting the complex economic systems of displaced populations, it sought to offer guidance to policymakers on how to promote more sustainable opportunities for market-based approaches to refugee assistance. The report has had a significant impact on policy, practice, and public debate.

This report received media coverage from The Independent, The Guardian, BBC World News, Central China Television, Thomson Reuters, and in a documentary by NPR. It has been presented at key policy meetings such as UN ECOSOC’s humanitarian section, UNHCR’s annual NGO consultations, the World Bank, the Danish Red Cross annual summit, and a joint UNHCR-RefugePoint meeting at Harvard University. Invited presentations and workshops have taken place in key government ministries, including DFID and the GIZ. Within
the region itself, launch events have been held (in collaboration with UNHCR and funded by the Norwegian MFA) in Kampala and Nairobi, with governments, NGOs and international organisations; and in the refugee settlements in Uganda.

We are now seeking to expand this research comparatively to other countries, initially within East Africa and then possibly to other regions of the world, including the Middle East and Europe.

To find out more about this sub-project contact Dr. Naohiko Omata.

"Refugee communities are often integrated within vibrant and complex economic systems. Recognising and understanding this represents an opportunity to turn humanitarian challenges into sustainable opportunities."

Dr. Alexander Betts
RSC Director