In an attempt to bring national unity, the Biden-Harris Administration has thus far proceeded cautiously in their approach to refugee policy. Primarily focusing on the resettlement cap, they initially sustained Trump’s historically low 15,000 limit and then raised it to 62,500 with the possibility of a later increase to 122,000 per year. They’ve also raised procedural questions at the U.S.-Mexican border, suspending the Trump administration’s policy to require asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their claims were processed. And, though the Administration has committed $4 billion to tackle the “root causes” of irregular migration, the details of the implementation of this approach remain unclear.

Analysts often compare the United States to Europe and its response to the “refugee crisis.” But the EU serves as a poor model for U.S. policy.

In recent decades U.S. refugee policy has mainly focused on spontaneous arrival asylum. And, indeed, as Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have been afflicted by gang violence, environmental degradation, and socio-economic collapse, record numbers of asylum seekers have travelled to the U.S.-Mexican border. In 2019 many of the 1 million people apprehended at the border would likely have claimed asylum but for the Trump Administration’s imposed ban on asylum claims for those passing through a “safe country” such as Mexico. After a brief pandemic-induced hiatus, nearly 900,000 people have been apprehended at the border in 2021. If we take into account not only migrants at the border, but the 4.2 million “externally displaced” Venezuelans as well, the Americas already face refugee numbers comparable to those in Europe at the height of its 2015 and 2016 so-called “refugee crisis.”

Because of the large numbers of people at the border, analysts often compare the United States to Europe and its response to the “refugee crisis.” The European Union, then having twenty-eight member states and 446 million inhabitants, should not have struggled as badly as it did with 1.3 million arrivals in 2015 and 1.2 million in 2016. However, amid a failure of collective action, many countries shirked responsibility and freerode, mainly on Germany, which took in half of Europe’s asylum seekers over the two years. The EU’s resistance caused a significant loss of life in the Mediterranean and the total collapse of human rights standards. Today it serves as a poor model for U.S. policy.

As the United States attempts to grapple with rising displacement in Latin and South America, we would do well to heed the lessons of other regions in the world. Africa offers a neglected source of insight, as it hosts 26 percent of the world’s refugees. Indeed, just three countries in East Africa—Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia—host more than 2.8 million refugees, seven times more than the United States, despite having an average GDP/capita sixty times lower. These countries are not simply disproportionately generous; their policies reflect the reality that they share borders with conflict-afflicted countries such as Somalia, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

My research team has undertaken a survey of over 16,000 refugees and nearby host community members in refugee camps and cities across Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia. We have also conducted a series of in-depth interviews and impact evaluations examining particular policies in each country, all of which have adopted different approaches and have accepted far more refugees than the United States, both numerically and proportionally. Despite their differences, each country has adopted an innovative approach, from which the wider world can and should learn. The United States, in particular, can learn much when it comes to implementing a new U.S. refugee policy, both in integrating its own refugees and partnering with other countries across the Americas.

Why is it that three countries in East Africa have accepted far more refugees than the United States, both numerically and proportionally?

Though it is significant to consider how we might set refugee resettlement caps and process people at the border, a national refugee policy must consider more. U.S. refugee policy historically focused less on spontaneous arrival than on resettlement, selecting vulnerable refugees from camps around the world. That model, while imperfect, had the virtue of a global lens. After all, human displacement will be one of the defining issues of the twenty-first century. And, as refugee numbers rise higher than at any time since World War II, nationalism and the economic legacy of COVID-19 have made both rich and poor countries even less willing to open their doors to people seeking sanctuary.

With a new administration in office, there is an opportunity for a new refugee policy. The United States can begin this endeavor by looking to different regions of the world and asking new questions.

Uganda, Enabling Refugees to Work

Uganda, a country of 44 million people, hosts 1.5 million refugees. Refugees are able to comprise nearly 3.5 percent of the population because Uganda has sustained a “self-reliance” model since independence.

In Uganda, refugees comprise 3.5 percent of the population—and host communities generally welcome them for their contributions to the economy.

In contrast to most refugee-hosting countries, Uganda allows refugees the right to work and significant freedom to move. In its rural settlements, refugees are even provided plots of land to cultivate, which is associated with better food security and dietary diversity outcomes. Indeed, the BBC has described Uganda as “one of the best places to be a refugee.”

The country has thirteen designated settlements. Opened in 1958, Nakivale—one of the thirteen—is the oldest refugee camp in Africa. The camp challenges the popular conception of a refugee camp as an endless line of tents with United Nations trucks delivering food aid. Instead, Nakivale is a hive of economic activity. It has three formal markets—Juru, Rubondo, and Base Camp—with each hosting market stalls run by both refugees and Ugandans. They interact with one another, buying and selling everything from sorghum to meat, and from mobile phones and textiles to alcoholic beverages.

Nakivale also includes the New Congo, Little Kigali, and Somali Village areas, where shops—such as a Somali bus company, a Congolese-run cinema, Ethiopian restaurants, an internet café where young people use the internet or play FIFA—line the streets. The telecommunications companies Orange and MTN have vendors spread across the settlement, selling handsets, SIM cards, and airtime.

One of the main advantages of living in Uganda, compared to neighboring Kenya, is the liberty it affords to engage in business activities and move freely without having to fear arrest. Entrepreneurs can travel to the nearby Mbarara town or Kampala to buy raw materials from wholesalers, then sell them in shops or open markets to refugees and host communities. Fatuma, a Somali refugee who runs an eclectic retail shop that sells food, spices, and cosmetics in the Somali-dominated Zone Three of Nakivale, explained the importance of mobility for her business: “I initially started this business with my Somali refugee friend who moved from Nakivale to Kampala. . . . I go to Kampala every two months to purchase my stuff.”

When refugees and hosts interact more, hosts have more positive perceptions of refugees.

Another advantage of Nakivale is that it lacks defined boundaries, meaning that local Ugandan villagers frequently interact with refugees who work on local farms and conduct transactions with the nearby community. The host communities generally welcome refugees, as they visibly contribute to the economy. The chairperson of a local village explained, “The presence of refugees is positive for local villages. Refugees have money and buy our crops from us. If the camp disappeared, locals would suffer a lot.” Another community leader added, “We have been selling bananas to refugees. We know refugees economically contribute. Our economy is connected with Nakivale.” Indeed, in the area around Nakivale, greater levels of interaction between refugees and hosts corresponds to hosts having a more positive perception of refugees.

We also found that, holding other factors constant, the Ugandan model (allowing refugees to work) leads to better outcomes than the Kenyan model (restricting the right to work and move). It affords greater mobility, contributes to lower transaction costs for economic activity, and allows for more sustainable sources of employment. For example, controlling for other variables, refugees in Uganda have 16 percent higher incomes than those in Kenya, even though they reside in a much poorer country. Moreover, there is also evidence that host nationals benefit from letting refugees work: 21 percent of refugees in Kampala run a business that employs at least one other person, 40 percent of whom are host nationals.

But the Ugandan model is far from perfect. Nakivale is one of the better settlements because, in contrast to newer ones further north such as Bidibidi or Rwamwanja, it is both an established community and possesses arable land. And yet, even there, the land allocation model is limited—there is too little land to go around. As refugee numbers have increased, fewer recent arrivals have gained access to land while plot sizes have simultaneously been cut. This, in turn, has created greater tension with the local community.

In cities such as Kampala, which is home to nearly 100,000 refugees, many refugees struggle as a result of giving up the assistance that camps afford. We found that even though refugees in Kampala were likely to have higher incomes and employment rates than those in Nakivale, they had lower levels of subjective well-being and poorer health outcomes. A local leader of a refugee-led organization explained that, “by coming to the city, refugees give up almost all assistance.” He continued, “They either have to find work or they depend upon support from within the community.”

It is also crucial to understand that the liberal Ugandan refugee model is built on complex political foundations. Uganda has not given refugees these rights purely out of altruism, but because its political elites and host communities have historically benefited from these policies as well. The model gives Uganda international legitimacy and brings in resources that can be partially allocated to supporting citizens and maintaining patronage networks.

Overall, though, Uganda demonstrates how giving refugees the right and opportunity to work can benefit both refugees and host communities, while also revealing how higher levels of interaction lead to greater acceptance from the host community. Unlocking labor market opportunities and ensuring the economic integration of refugees can lead to better outcomes for both refugees and receiving communities.

Kenya, Benefiting the Local Community

Unlike Uganda, Kenya is not known for its progressive refugee policies. It restricts the right to work and insists that its over 508,000 refugees live in refugee camps, either in the Dadaab camps that border Somalia or the Kakuma camps that border South Sudan. Only a tiny minority of refugees move to cities, either illicitly or with special permits. With exaggerated national fears of Somali terrorism, the government has recently threatened to close down both sets of refugee camps.

In Kenya local leadership has stepped up even in the absence of national leadership.

However, in one remote region of the country—Turkana County, which hosts the Kakuma camps and nearly 200,000 refugees—the local governor, Josphat Nanok, has adopted a different approach. Nanok previously worked for a humanitarian organization and witnessed the devastating economic consequences for the County when a cohort of refugees returned home to South Sudan. Nanok described Turkana County having “only two major resources: its oil and its refugees.”

Humanitarian aid agencies have created employment opportunities in the four camps, but they also have over 2,000 registered small businesses (nearly half of the total of the entire region). Though the majority are small food retailers, there are also art galleries, internet cafes, jewellers, sports shops, and services for hairdressing and childcare. And larger businesses also emerge. For example, Mesfin Getahun—an Ethiopian refugee known as “the millionaire of Kakuma”—runs one of the largest food wholesalers in the region, even supplying UN programs.

In 2014 Nanok began working with the UN on a plan that could benefit both refugees and the local population. It was prompted by two studies. First, the World Bank’s “‘Yes’ In My Backyard?” demonstrated how host populations benefit from refugees. Then, the International Finance Corporation’s “Kakuma as a Marketplace” estimated that the Kakuma refugee camps had an economy worth $56.2 million in annual household consumption. Backed with EU funding, the County Government and the UN set out a fifteen-year strategy for the entire sub-county—the Kalobeyei Integrated Socio-Economic Development Programme (KISEDP)—a key feature of which was the creation of a brand-new settlement built alongside the existing camps.

While the Kakuma camps exemplified an “old” aid model based on the long-term delivery of in-kind food assistance, the new settlement, called Kalobeyei, aspired to create a “new” aid model. In this new model, refugees and the host community would live together in an integrated settlement with shared access to the same public services and markets. As the UN Refugee Agency explained, “Kalobeyei. . . represents our new approach. . . settlements. . . that are completely integrated with the local community, and where the local community benefits, where we attract international development assistance as well as private investment.”

Devastating economic consequences occurred when a cohort of refugees returned home to South Sudan.

One example of Kalobeyei’s market-based innovation is its “cash-for-shelter” model, which is the first implemented in a refugee camp. Instead of allocating one-size-fits-all humanitarian shelters, it gives each household a grant of approximately $1,400 to choose their own home design. This allows greater choice, supports the local construction industry, and enables refugees to reinvest remaining funds. Mary, a South Sudanese refugee, told us, “it gives us dignity by allowing us to choose our home. We can keep the money that is left over and spend it on furniture, a bed, or a lock for the door.” Moreover, the promise of improved healthcare, schools, and job opportunities for everyone has made the community more open to receiving refugees.

Of course, Kalobeyei is not without limitations. We compared outcomes for recently arrived South Sudanese refugees in Kakuma and Kalobeyei, and both had similar economic outcomes two years after the new settlement opened. Less than 2 percent of South Sudanese refugees in Kalobeyei perceived themselves as independent of aid, and just 6 percent had an income-generating activity. Without macroeconomic growth for the entire region, even innovative market-based approaches can only circulate a finite amount of aid money. Still, Turkana County offers wider insights. It not only shows that political leaders can enact change, but that local leadership can step up even in the absence of national leadership.

Ethiopian market in Kakuma refugee camps, Kenya (Image credit: Alexander Betts)

Ethiopia, Encouraging Private Sector Investment

Ethiopia hosts over 800,000 refugees—mainly from South Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia—in four main regions of the country. Until recently the government denied refugees the right to work and insisted that, with few exceptions, they live in camps. In early 2019, however, the country passed new legislation allowing the right to work and move freely, with the caveat that the legislation be gradually implemented and subject to the financial support of the international community. But in the region of the country that borders Somalia, a new approach to designing refugee camps has gradually emerged through private sector investment.

Ethiopia recently passed new legislation allowing refugees the right to work and move freely.

Between 2009 and 2011, hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees crossed into Ethiopia, fleeing conflict, famine, and drought. The UN created a humanitarian response location near the border town of Dollo Ado, surrounded by an arid and isolated area with limited infrastructure. Five refugee camps soon emerged; today they collectively host over 160,000 people. Initially, the camps offered few opportunities, risking becoming like so many camps around the world which meet basic needs but leave people in limbo for decades.

During a seven-year period, the IKEA Foundation committed approximately $100 million to support UNHCR in piloting an alternative model of refugee assistance, based on building the local economy and supporting sustainable livelihood opportunities for both refugees and the nearby host community. This represents the largest private philanthropic donation ever given to the UN Refugee Agency.

One of the model’s key innovations has been a series of “cooperatives”—membership-based income-generating groups. The cooperatives typically involve an equal number of refugees and host community members, and cover areas such as agriculture, livestock, energy and the environment, and microfinance. Members receive vocational training and access to basic inputs, and usually share profits among the group. These cooperatives are still at an early stage, though, and have thus far had varying levels of success.

For example, in the case of agriculture, the Foundation financed the construction of twenty-nine kilometres of irrigation canals to transport water directly to the fields, creating 1,000 hectares of irrigated cropland. This is enough for 1,000 refugee and 1,000 host community cooperative members to farm their own plot and grow crops such as onions, maize, and watermelons, which are sold at local markets inside the camps or to large commercial buyers. A key feature of the program is that the land is divided equally between refugees and the host community. When we asked about the program, 87 percent of refugee members told us that they now have a higher income than before. Moreover, membership has measurably boosted self-esteem and improved the relationship between refugees and the host community. One refugee farmer told us how the program has impacted her:

We’re working together for a common dream. . . . My half hectare was bushland, experiencing the help of others, refugees and hosts, in clearing that land—pulling out stones and roots together, and now seeing crops growing, gives me confidence that I can help others now. Before I was only receiving. . . now I think I can be of help.

Private sector investment can create market-based opportunities in refugee-hosting regions.

Unfortunately, some projects have failed because the cooperatives have lacked commercial viability. Cooperatives relating to livestock have found the most success because they built upon a pre-existing activity—both refugees and the host community have strong pastoralist backgrounds and a demand for goat milk and meat. The programs were market-based and engaged with an entire value chain, creating infrastructure and investment for wholesale, retail, and support services. Livestock cooperative members reported higher income and consumption levels than before, better welfare outcomes than the general population, and improved relationships with the host community.

Overall, Dollo Ado illustrates the potential for private sector investment to create market-based opportunities in even the most remote refugee-hosting regions.

An entrepreneur in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia (Image credit: Raphael Bradenbrink)

Lessons for the Biden-Harris Administration

The United States needs to develop a national refugee policy, and these three case studies might offer some guidance.

Domestically, any new refugee policy requires an integration strategy for refugees after they arrive in the United States. Internationally, it necessitates an understanding of how the United States builds the capacity of other refugee-hosting countries, so that refugees can access their rights close to home and don’t need resettlement or onward migration.

The three countries I examined manage to host many more refugees than the United States, despite linguistic and cultural differences, and being much poorer. If Uganda can host 1.5 million refugees, surely the United States can manage to resettle 100,000 per year.

However, these countries also exemplify that refugees must be seen as contributors to receiving communities. Just as stories have been told across the United States of refugees’ contributions to reviving small town economies, so too the three East African countries’ experiences show how a range of policies can encourage host communities to view refugees in a positive light. The key is creating better public services and job opportunities for both refugees and nearby citizens. When this is achieved, receiving communities may become more receptive to refugees.

Internationally, the three countries highlight the potential value of development-based approaches to displacement within Southern Mexico, the Northern Triangle, and South America. Rather than viewing refugee assistance as simply about the delivery of humanitarian aid, the cases show positive outcomes from approaches that focus on employment, self-reliance, and livelihood opportunities. U.S. refugee policy needs to be a matter not only for the Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) branch of the State Office but also for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). We must create the right and opportunity for refugees and displaced populations to work, while demonstrating the ways in which this benefits local communities and nurturing private sector investment. Creating socio-economic opportunity closer to home will not completely address irregular migration, but it can make a difference for displaced populations.

Amid rising refugee and displacement numbers across the Americas, the Biden-Harris Administration needs to build a coherent development-based approach to be implemented beyond just the U.S.-Mexican border. Simultaneously, we must empower and invest in both displaced people and their host communities.