Taking the Next Step in Refugee Aid

by Emily Ginsberg

The word “refugee” usually conjures up images of teeming tent camps in barren fields, makeshift communities kept far from the rest of society. But there is a growing population of displaced people around the world who have relocated to cities in refugee recipient countries – and who have no foreseeable plans for returning to their home country. Today, urban refugees account for nearly half of the population the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) works with, a trend that has accelerated since the 1950s. In Latin America, this trend is most pronounced in Ecuador. Colombia’s half-century-long civil war sent masses of refugees spilling over the border.  According to UNHCR statistics, the number of Colombian refugees in Ecuador has reached 180,000 (and some experts even estimate there are as many as 250,000, largely undocumented and unrecognized by the Ecuadorian government).

Refugees trying to integrate into a new society need more than temporary housing and food to tide them over before they relocate. While working in Ecuador on a needs assessment of Ecuador’s refugees, I learned that the greatest obstacle for many of them was finding work to support themselves. Given the weak job market and the prominence of the informal job sector, many of the refugees who did succeed in finding work had to create their own jobs through entrepreneurial endeavors supported by one of the local aid agencies.

One woman I interviewed recounted how she was nearly destitute after the restaurant where she worked was burned down. When no other job materialized, the strong-willed single mother of two took matters into her own hands. She began selling jewelry made out of orange peels, coffee beans and ribbons. She primarily found clientele on the street and sometimes at local events. To succeed, she had needed advice on how to best sell her products and how to source the materials for the jewelry. While she received some help from local aid organizations, high competition and lack of access to capital presented a daily challenge for her business.

So how do aid organizations take this entrepreneurial drive and their own resources to support refugees beyond their first few months of displacement? This challenge might fundamentally change the character of refugee aid organizations, and it is a challenge those organizations must face given the changing urban settlement patterns of refugee populations. This goes beyond policies on how many pounds of food someone is allowed per week and takes the next step, focusing on empowering refugees and helping them on their way to becoming self sufficient.

About the Author

Emily is focusing on Development Economics and International Business at Fletcher and has a particular interest in enterprise growth in developing countries. Prior to coming to Fletcher, she worked with a small conflict resolution NGO in Quito, Ecuador where she worked with the growing refugee population to understand their needs and develop tools to address some of the gaps not addressed by refugee aid organizations or the Ecuadorian Government. She also worked with the Business Development team at GlobalGiving, a charity fundraising site that connects nonprofits with donors. Emily holds a bachelors degree in Psychology from Washington University in St. Louis.

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