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UNHCR MCO Panama | Thematic Notes | 2021: Livelihoods - Building self-reliance and economic resilience


Improving livelihoods for forcibly displaced persons and host communities


  • Limited access to work, information, and services
  • Limited regularization avenues to access formal employment
  • Vulnerabilities and limited services in host communities
  • Xenophobia


  • Resilience, empowerment, and protection
  • Social cohesion
  • Regained dignity
  • Economic growth


The constant inflow of refugees, asylum seekers and other displaced people to countries under the Multi Country Office in Panama places great strains on host communities and puts them at risk of increasing already existing vulnerabilities and deficiencies. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate socioeconomic impact on the forcibly displaced. This global phenomenon has shone a light on the need for refugees to build self-reliance and economic resilience though employment, business opportunities and financial inclusion. It has also made it clear that investments within host communities are the more necessary to ensure resilience. Since the beginning of the health crisis, they have endured disruptions in livelihoods and income, have faced challenges in covering basic needs, and have often felt forced into returns in adversity or negative coping mechanisms.

In 2021, displaced persons continue to face challenges to pursue livelihoods, including the lack of access to the right to work, and ongoing restrictions on non-essential businesses and the informal sector of the economy. Persistent displacement crises continue to contribute to movements of people even when borders remained closed. The current situation has resulted to be a favorable setting for human trafficking and exploitation in various countries under MCO Panama. According to the most recent Trafficking in Persons Report, Venezuelan, Central American, Cuban, and other Caribbean refugees and migrants are currently amongst the most at-risk of trafficking, exploitation, and forced labour.

UNCHR has identified improving livelihoods as a key component of achieving protection and solutions outcomes for refugees, as a major driver of inclusion. Therefore, it has built its response on vocational training, employability, entrepreneurial and financial literacy programmes; advocacy with both private and public sectors, as well as civil society; and targeted cash-based interventions to help refuges, asylum-seekers and locals become more self-reliant.

UNHCR continues to promote livelihoods and economic inclusion, to help build self-reliance of displaced persons by empowering them to meet their needs in a safe, sustainable, and dignified manner, preparing them to lead independent and fulfilling lives, as well as contribute to host communities and to local economies.


Seeking to promote local integration and livelihood alternatives to strengthen income generating activities for both refugee and host communities:

In Belize, during 2021, 101 refugees and asylum-seekers participated in small business training sessions and vocational and skill building trainings. Of them, 43 have started their businesses and received start-up kits. In Guyana, more than 100 vulnerable Venezuelan refugees and migrants, and host communities have participated in a face masks production project. Since mid-2020, the individuals produced over 50,000 cloth face masks. Facilitating sustainability of the project, 70 sewing machines were donated to participants to continue their income-generating activities. In Panama, UNHCR, Microserfin – a financial institution – and the Panamanian Red Cross renewed their MoU to strengthen future collaboration for the micro credit and financial inclusion programme. Furthermore, as of July 2021, 66 refugees and host community members graduated from the employability programme Talento sin Fronteras, where they enhanced their job seeking skills, and gained knowledge on curriculum construction and personal branding. Finally, UNHCR, HIAS and City of Knowledge Foundation held a “Refugee Market” to promote the businesses, skills, and abilities that refugees and asylum-seekers have. All entrepreneurships participating in the market were strengthened through UNHCR supported livelihood programmes such as Canal de Empresarias. In Trinidad and Tobago, during the first semester of 2021 UNHCR partner Living Water Community (LWC) conducted a market labour assessment that identified the need of refugees and migrants to integrate into the labour force particularly in sectors like agriculture, agro-processing, retail and distribution, and personal care.

Financial gaps

The number of people of concern to UNHCR continues growing and the economic aftershocks of COVID-19 exacerbated the vulnerability of those with the least means. In this context, overall needs in most operations largely exceed available resources. In the absence of sufficient funding, prioritization of immediate and urgent assistance may negatively impact work on resilience and long-term solutions.