By Dr. Elizabeth Ferris, Georgetown University

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of articles and reports have appeared recently, analyzing the potential for the COVID-19 virus to wreak havoc among refugees living in crowded conditions with inadequate sanitation and limited access to health care. Refugees International, for example, traces in painful detail the many risk factors which refugees face while the International Rescue Committee highlights the weaknesses of  health systems and UNHCR outlines the steps it is taking to stay and deliver aid to refugees in the midst of the pandemic.

The potential for the virus to spread rapidly among refugees and to produce high casualties is real and terrifying. But what I worry about most are those 80% of the world’s refugees who don’t live in camps but are eking out an existence by working in the informal sector and who have now lost their livelihoods because of the pandemic.

In this morning’s twitter feed, I came across a brief mention of a recent survey by the Danish Refugee Council in Jordan in which only 3% of Syrian refugee households reported that they currently have an employed family member (down from 65% before COVID-19). Almost 80% said that they don’t have access to sufficient food for the next 3 weeks.

We don’t have this kind of information about refugees everywhere, but as leading experts have found, most of the world’s refugees do not have access to the formal labor market in their countries of refuge. Although some are able to access assistance, most of the world’s refugees are likely ‘getting by’ through poorly paid and ad hoc work in the informal sector. While you don’t often think of those living in refugee camps as being privileged, when it comes to aid – and to access to medical care, for that matter – they may be the lucky ones.

What happens to these refugees when they lose their livelihoods? When they can’t work in the informal sector, whether as sidewalk vendors or day labourers in construction or domestic workers? When shut-down orders and curfews are enforced, these are people who can’t work from home and who don’t even have formal employers. Nor do they have the same social safety nets – inadequate as they may be – as citizens in their host country.  We know that UNHCR is working hard to raise funds to support refugees during this crisis, but UNHCR simply can’t replace the refugees’ lost income.

I’m convinced that we need to shift paradigms away from providing aid to refugees to supporting their right to access the formal labor market in their countries of refuge. And when that access isn’t forthcoming, we need to focus on supporting refugees’ efforts to become self-reliant. In this respect, Refuge Point, the Women’s Refugee Commission and many other organizations have formed a community of practice around the concept of self-reliance. Promoting self-reliance isn’t easy – particularly when refugees aren’t allowed to work and have to work under the radar. Success so far has been modest as Amy Slaughter reports on Refuge Point’s efforts to help 3000 refugees in Nairobi to become self-reliant.

Make no mistake, advocating for self-reliance is a pragmatic solution. At best it is a halfway house, a partial solution for refugees that falls far short of the gold standard of citizenship through local integration or return ‘in safety and dignity’ to their homes. Even the most successful cases of self-reliant refugees live awfully close to the edge – one broken leg or one tropical storm can push them into poverty. The focus on self-reliance has been criticized for being neo-liberal in its orientation and as an excuse for donors to cut their assistance, though this critique has largely focused on refugees in camps and sweeping reductions in assistance that affect large groups indiscriminately, rather than the individual aspirations of urban refugees.

Advocating for refugee self-reliance has a long and not very successful history. It is far from a panacea. It is an imperfect, incomplete way of assisting refugees to get by when the right answer would be for the international community to step up and find truly lasting and honourable solutions.  But as interest wanes and refugees lose even their tenuous informal jobs in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, promoting and supporting self-reliance of refugees seems like a pragmatic alternative which can help people survive in these tough times.

Dr. Elizabeth Ferris is a Research Professor with the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She has written extensively on refugee, migration and humanitarian issues, including The Politics of Protection: The Limits of Humanitarian Action (Brookings Institution Press, 2011), and most recently Refugees, Migration and Global Governance: Negotiating the Global Compacts with Katharine Donato (Routledge 2019).