> Posted by Daniel Balson, Lead Specialist for Eurasia and MENA, The Smart Campaign

The following is the first post in a four-part blog series on the financial inclusion of refugees and the internally displaced.

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The unresolved Syrian conflict and the slow collapse of nation-states on Europe’s periphery have brought the topic of refugees back into the media spotlight. Whereas previously, refugees were often seen as a problem of the Global South, events have now brought migrants to Europe’s doorstop, forcing OECD countries to consider new strategies to provide for and integrate this population. Yet as refugee assistance becomes a hot topic once again, old myths and fictions have reemerged. Refugees are often described as highly transitory populations with few marketable skills who will inevitably rely on long-term government assistance. But these stereotypes are frequently inaccurate.

Providers of financial services for the poor can play a critical role in empowering refugee populations. By offering credit, insurance, savings and other products, these providers can help refugees transition beyond reliance on economic assistance programs, achieve independence, and contribute to their host countries. To attain this goal, however, the financial inclusion sector needs to gain a better understanding of the specific challenges and opportunities that refugees face and the financial needs they are likely to have. This is the first in a series of blog posts where we’ll discuss some of these critical questions. What happens when a previously included individual is excluded from the formal financial system? What special vulnerabilities do refugee populations face and what special protections can help ensure that they are not taken advantage of by lenders? How have other countries used financial services to help meet this challenge in the past?

In this post, we discuss two commonly told refugee narratives and explore what we already know about including forced migrants in the formal financial sector.

Myth 1. Refugees are transitory. To begin, how long do refugees typically stay in a refugee camp? It’s a lot longer than most people think. The most commonly quoted statistic (see CNN and The Huffington Post) is that the average length of stay in a refugee camp is 17 years. According to the BBC, this figure comes from a partial misreading of a 2006 report by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which used the figure to describe the average duration of refugee situations rather than the average duration of refugee encampment. More accurate statistics are hard to come by: the definition of a refugee often depends on the individual or organization deploying it. Nevertheless, while the average stay in a refugee camp may be well under 17 years, it is clear that refugees are far from the transitory population they are often depicted as in the popular imagination.

Myth 2. Refugees are an economic burden and do not contribute to the local economy. The world currently has the highest number of forcibly displaced people since World War II, but this has not been matched by an increase in pathways to increased economic opportunities for this vulnerable population. Were they to gain access to these opportunities, they could provide a boon for their host countries.

Research has shown that refugees aren’t merely passive victims but are engaged in a wide and diverse array of productive economic activities, leveraging a pool of extensive skills and experiences acquired both in their host countries and countries of origin. Indeed, a recent report by the Refugee Studies Center at the University of Oxford challenges commonly-held myths that refugees are necessarily an economic burden, are technologically illiterate, and exclusively dependent on international assistance. A study of the Dadaab Refugee Camp on the Kenya-Somalia border assessed the camp’s economic value at $14 million dollars – a full 25 percent of the economy of the province that hosted it. A joint study by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, found that, for every dollar invested in refugee assistance, roughly $.50 returns into the local economy through the multiplier effect. This shouldn’t be surprising. Scholars often term war and natural disaster as “social status agnostic;” physicians are as likely to flee violence as manual laborers, though they often do so under different circumstances and in different ways.

Despite their tremendous economic potential, refugees face very specific challenges in securing quality financial products that are rarely encountered by other vulnerable populations. If they were forced to flee conflict or natural disaster, they are likely to have had limited prior preparation. As such, refugees often lack the fixed assets necessary to secure a business or consumption loan, even if they had such assets where they originally lived. While many countries are parties to international agreements that enshrine the refugee’s right to work, refugees often encounter legal obstacles that prevent this right from translating into a reality. Of 15 countries examined by UNHCR, nearly 45 percent have effectively prohibitive legal barriers to employment for refugees. As a result, refugees are often drawn to black and grey markets, rendering them unable to document income as is necessary to secure a loan. Refugees have little say in where they reside. They often have a limited grasp of the language and culture and minimal experience navigating the bureaucracy in their host country. Finally, refugees are often perceived as a flight risk, and are not trusted by financial service providers to return borrowed funds. In cases where they are able to secure access to financial services, unscrupulous lenders may view them as easy targets for abuse, given their limited access to recourse. Moreover, creditors are rarely interested in arranging a lending infrastructure that can continue to serve refugee populations after they return to their home country. As such, credit scores built up in exile are valueless when refugees return to their countries of origin.

Systemic and concerted research on refugees and financial inclusion is new, and many questions remain unanswered. In the 1960s and 1970s, the UNHCR began to study how refugees could be assisted in a sustainable way. The original plan was to develop large agricultural communities in host countries that, through international aid, would become economically self-reliant and subsequently ceded to the host-country, which would assume responsibility for governance and service provision. This approach proved unsuccessful and was overtaken in the subsequent decade by a focus on emergency response prompted by the collapse of communism and by famine in the Horn of Africa. In the 1990s, UNHCR saw a resurgence of interest in refugee livelihoods and assistance programs built around self-reliance in recognition of the greater prevalence of protracted displacement versus immediate crises. Organizations including NGOs and the UN began to explore how to leverage microcredit to assist refugees and the internally displaced.

In a recent effort to stimulate interest in and understanding of how to offer financial services to refugees, the Social Performance Task Force (SPTF) partnered with the UNHCR to design guidelines for financial service providers. In addition to building the skills of financial service providers, the guidelines help dispel myths about refugee populations and encourage the adoption of delivery mechanisms and services that meet this population’s specific needs.

There’s no doubt that the financial inclusion sector is far better informed about providing assistance to refugees today than in the past. Still, major knowledge gaps remain. First, while the research has provided greater clarity on what it takes to sustain financial services for refugees, it has rarely explored how these services are experienced from the perspective of the refugee. Second, the research pays little attention to new products, services and methods of delivery that have emerged in the past few years. Finally, ongoing research has yet to explore how refugee populations can be protected from abuse by lenders, given their specific and unique needs.

This blog series will make a very modest attempt to explore some of these gaps through three follow-on blog posts. The next post will look at Azerbaijan, where the microfinance sector emerged specifically to serve internally displaced persons from that country’s war with Armenia. In a subsequent post, we will speak about Al Majmoua, a pioneering Lebanese institution that provides loans to mixed groups of Lebanese and Syrian refugee women. Finally, we’ll take a look at the future of financial services provision for refugees and consider how new technologies are opening up a world of possibilities for assisting migratory populations.

Have you read?

Smart Certification: The View from Azerbaijan

‘Client Voices’ at the Georgian Parliament

Financial Inclusion and Immigration in Europe – Disrupting Identity Norms