In 1990, while I was living in Sierra Leone, two men with machetes mugged me. I survived the attack relatively unharmed, and when I told my Sierra Leonean friends about it, they said that my attackers must have been Liberian since no Sierra Leonean would be so violent. At the time, thousands of Liberians had fled the war in Liberia, finding safety in Freetown. Their presence strained an already-crowded capital city, and the prejudice in the conclusion my friends drew about who was responsible for mugging me highlighted the growing resentment some people felt at the effect the war had on Sierra Leone. Of course less than a year later, Liberian rebel incursions into the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone drew Sierra Leone into the war, and the atrocities carried out by Sierra Leoneans and Liberians are well documented.
This personal experience highlights how prejudice against refugees often results from resentment over entitlements the newcomers receive from host country governments, particularly when the local population is already struggling. It also underlines the connection between refugees and governance, and how important it is for governments to balance the needs of their citizens with the pressures the incoming population places on the system. It is important to understand the relationship between governance and refugees since the effects of population influxes to a country are long lasting and the cost of ignoring these deeper issues is high.
Much is known about the strains that refugees place on governance systems, yet very little academic or even gray literature exists and few case studies are found about the positive outcomes they can have on these same systems. However, given the current state of global affairs and the unprecedented refugee movements around the world, this is a topic that deserves much further exploration and understanding.
One example of the positive impact that refugees can have on governance systems comes from Plan International’s work in Germany. When Plan began its refugee response efforts in 2015, there were 1 million refugees in Germany from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Eritrea. The reception centers set up to receive refugees were meant to house people for less than six months but the reality was that people typically stayed more than a year. There were 800 unaccompanied minors. In one weekend, 10,000 people arrived in Munich.
Overwhelmed, the German government enlisted the help of Plan International. The organization drew on its extensive work with vulnerable children around the world to focus on documenting and mapping where children, especially girls, were most at risk, in order to implement child protection measures. This example highlights how the presence of refugees prompted the government to undertake more inclusive and responsive assistance programs. As a result, authorities have been working to expand child protection measures all over Germany. An important indirect outcome of this work has been greater attention placed on issues that were prevalent within the refugee populations coming into Germany, including female genital mutilation, child marriage, and trafficking.
In Finland, the government aims to integrate youth refugee populations before they leave schools since they are easier to support in this setting. Through support of the refugee students, the government can reach parents at the same time, offering services such as life skills classes. This approach suggests that proactive support to refugees, while taxing governance systems, may also yield dividends in terms of preventing future challenges such as disenfranchised or radicalized populations.
Refugees impact all levels of governance, from local to national to global systems. We have seen how refugees strain municipal governance systems, but there is also some evidence that they can provide an opportunity to strengthen these systems through enhanced resources and attention. We have seen how elections can be won or lost – or at the least shaped – by the presence of refugees and the government position towards them. We know that accepting and even integrating refugees into countries is expensive and taxes social services. At the same time, investment in refugees provides opportunity for an influx of people who can provide innovation, new networks, and richness to the host country through diverse perspectives and experiences.
How a governance system responds to and is affected by refugee populations will have a lasting impact on society, so decisions need to be made with respect to both long-term benefits and shorter-term costs. In some cases, governments have taken a “not our problem” approach, while in others governments have embraced the challenges and opportunities refugee populations present, using the influx to strengthen service delivery, enhance inclusion and participation, and promote their international standing.
The question becomes: how do you get the government system to work systematically for refugees as well as local host populations? Great challenges remain, from national identity issues for climate change refugees and small-island sovereignty – for those refugees whose entire nations may cease to exist in the near future. None of these questions have easy or even apparent answers, but it is certain that how they are answered is determined by and will determine the health of governance systems at all levels.