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Thrive or survive? Explaining variation in economic outcomes for refugees

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In the context of protracted refugee situations, there has been a revival in concern among policymakers to transcend the so-called humanitarian-development divide and create greater opportunities for self-reliance. Yet, these discussions too often neglect an analytical focus on refugees’ own economic lives, and their own interactions with markets.Despite a growing literature on the economic lives of refugees, much of that work has lacked theory or data. The work that has been quantitative has generally focused on the economic impact of refugees on host countries rather than explaining variation in economic outcomes for refugees. In order to explain variation in economic outcomes for refugees, this paper asks three questions about the economic lives of refugees: 1) what makes the economic lives of refugees distinctive from other populations; 2) what explains variation in refugees’ income levels; and 3) what role does entrepreneurship play in shaping refugees’ economic outcomes?In order to answer these questions, the paper draws upon extensive qualitative and quantitative research conducted in Uganda by the Humanitarian Innovation Project at Oxford University. The quantitative data set is based on a survey of 2,213 refugees in three types of contexts: urban (Kampala), protracted camps (Nakivale and Kyangwali settlements), and emergency camps (Rwamwanja). It supplements this with qualitative research from other parts of Africa and the Middle East. The economic lives of refugees are argued to be distinctive not because refugees are any different qua human beings but because they often occupy a distinctive institutional space. Following new institutional economics, the paper argues that “refugee economies” represent a distinctive analytical space insofar as refugees face different formal and informal institutional barriers and distortions in their economic lives compared to nationals or other migrants.

Read more on the Refugee Studies Centre.