By Andrew Mitchell, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)


The Ukraine war has pushed the global forced displaced total to over 100 million for the first time on record (UNHCR 2022). With most refugees in protracted situations and only a small percentage of those realising durable solutions, inclusion in social protection systems, backed by international development investments, can contribute to more predictable and reliable alternatives to humanitarian assistance. This blog outlines some of the overall strategic approaches informing gains in refugee inclusion.


Challenges for transforming aspirations for inclusion into actions at the local level

There is an increasing recognition of the strategic value of aligning and transitioning humanitarian assistance to social protection systems in refugee-hosting countries (broadly termed ‘transitioning’).  This is particularly relevant given that humanitarian assistance is ill-equipped to manage the global context of 76% of refugees in situations of protracted displacement with less than one percent of refugees achieving a durable solution.[1]  The key challenge is to transform commitments in policy and in the long-standing social protection and international protection treaties and instruments promoting the inclusion of forcibly displaced populations into government systems [2] (broadly termed ‘inclusion’) into actionable practice on the ground.  Further, global funding for refugees is dominated by short-term humanitarian investments (71% ODA funds, according to Hesemann et al 2021) that are inadequate to meet the long-term needs of protracted displaced populations reliably and predictably. 


Overall approaches supporting gains in inclusion in developing countries

Framing locally-adapted approaches in partnership with hosting governments that leverages the complementary added value of international agencies working across the HDP nexus, backed by a suitable and sufficient montage of international investments has underpinned recent gains in inclusion. Whole-of-social-protection-system and area-based approaches catering for displaced and host populations alike also inform these gains.  For example, in Mauritania, international agencies have anchored their efforts on refugee inclusion in the Mauritanian Government’s Tekavoul social assistance and Almaouna shock-responsive programmes, embedding this within larger, refugee-hosting and area-based investments of the World Bank supporting social protection, WASH, public health and urban infrastructure.  

This is supported by innovative financing for additional development cooperation funds with a conditionality contingent on implementation in refugee-hosting areas for all population groups. For example, the World Bank’s IDA 18 Regional Sub-Window for Refugees and Hosting Communities Fund (IDA 18 RSW) financed ten government projects with social protection components in low-income countries and the IDA 19 Window for Host Communities and Refugee Fund is supporting four similar projects.  These investments are becoming an anchor point for hosting governments and other donors.  Coming back to Mauritania, the four World Bank IDA 18 RSW investments were complemented by two regional BMZ funds supporting community resilience and COVID-19 cash transfers, a third BMZ-funded joint GIZ-UNHCR project supporting transitioning and economic inclusion, and, an African Development Bank COVID-19 cash transfer fund for refugees. The WB IDA 18 RSW alone is supporting the total refugee population to be registered on the social registry and around 43 % of refugees to receive social assistance benefits.

Formulating a multi-actor transition action plan or roadmap considers two overarching strategic factors: the overall forced displacement cycle of a given population group and how the social protection system is leveraged along this cycle, and, the pathway to inclusion in specific government programmes and how international assistance relates to the strengthening and scaling up of each of these programmes.


Leveraging social protection systems along the cycle of forced displacement

Forced displacement can be framed by a cyclical set of displacement situations that evolve over the long-term given that many countries affected by protracted or reoccurring conflict generate multiple waves of displacement, and, that the mean duration of exile for refugees is around 10 years (Devictor 2019). This forced displacement cycle, comprising emergency, protracted displacement, durable solutions and fragility situations, shapes the type of social protection programme targeted for inclusion, the key partnerships set up and the funding montage supporting inclusion.

The onset of displacement occurs after people flee conflict and other grave security concerns leading to an emergency situation.  International actors can respond to emergency needs and mitigate impacts on host families and national social services by helping the government to implement cash and in-kind transfers via the national social assistance programme. Humanitarian actors can also set up humanitarian assistance operations aligned to the national system where the government refuses or does not have the capacity to act.  Certain World Bank COVID-19 responses have indicated how this works.  Contingent Emergency Response Component crisis-modifier mechanisms built into the IDA 18 RSW Social Safety Net Projects were triggered in DRC, Chad and Burkina Faso to fast-track cash transfers, and, the World Bank channeled additional COVID-19 funds via existing IDA 18 RSW social safety net projects in Cameroon and the Republic of Congo to provide cash transfers and support to workers, including refugees.

Over time in situations of protracted displacement, people are supported to settle in dignified conditions through further inclusion in national systems, noting that this in itself may not constitute a durable solution and that the starting point for this is a legal recognition on par with that of nationals.  Families can be supported to graduate from non-contributory cash and in-kind social assistance to other government-led or private sector health- and work-benefit schemes and social services, where these are functional. The shift from access to non-contributory to contributory social protection benefits requires scaling up efforts to build self-reliance via increased access to more productive social assistance activities, public works, financial services, livelihoods and jobs.  Informal and formal labour market access for refugees needs to be supported responsibly to ensure that opportunities are not taken away from poor host families.  And shock-responsive mechanisms should be harnessed to protect or hazard-proof refugee livelihoods and gains in self-reliance from the impacts of natural disasters and economic shocks, ensuring links to government disaster risk management systems.

The protection capacity of governments can also be reinforced to allow access to basic social welfare and family services for highly vulnerable groups. It may be necessary to continue international assistance to those who cannot embark on a pathway to self-reliance, who are not able to be included, or where government social assistance benefits are below key thresholds for basic needs such as Minimum Expenditure Baskets.  Providing complementary assistance needs to carefully mitigate against risks to social cohesion between host and displaced populations, particularly where host communities are challenged to receive support from their own government.

Given that around 85% of refugees are located in developing countries, many with nascent systems that offer inadequate coverage of their citizens, the reality is that inclusion in protracted situations is largely supported by international investments either directly or through budget support.  However, where forcibly displaced persons may achieve a durable solution to their displacement [3] the government is normally held responsible to fund inclusion.

Some of the key refugee countries of origin have generated multiple waves of displacement where continuing fragility leads to further conflict, safety fears and another cycle of displacement. Shock-responsive mechanisms preparing for the impacts of conflict and future displacement can be set up as a ‘no-regrets’ initiative that builds onto and strengthens existing shock-responsive programmes for nationals.  For example, the Sahel Adaptive Social Protection Programme led by the World Bank in six Sahelian countries (including Mauritania) has reviewed innovative mechanisms to counter food insecurity triggered by conflict and covers forcibly displaced populations. Shock-responsive mechanisms for displacement means (i) putting in place a contingency plan, informed by existing early warning systems tracking the likelihood of conflict, crisis and displacement, which (ii) opens up a timebound access of displaced people to national social assistance programmes that (iii) is backed by clear legal framework and, (iv) a joint host-government and international-actor financing plan.


Leveraging international assistance and government systems according to the pathway to inclusion

Inclusion of refugees in government systems in protracted situations often occurs as a pathway with progress regulated by ten enabling factors for inclusion (UNHCR 2021a). These factors include bridging the gap between de jure (in policy) and de facto (reception of benefits locally) access, long-term financing to hosting areas, and, the maturity and capacity of the government system to absorb new caseloads.  UNHCR and other agencies are supporting transitioning from humanitarian assistance to government programmes (UNHCR 2019) as a series of progressive steps that normally consider both host and displaced populations. Progress along a pathway to inclusion in a given context may begin with assistance delivered totally in parallel with government systems, representing traditional ‘care and maintenance’ programming. This is often chosen in contexts with highly restrictive legal frameworks covering refugees and/or where social protection systems have very low capacities, for example in set of Asian and African contexts. This assistance is aligned to government programme delivery parameters (e.g. transfer value, service provider, vulnerability criteria) where there is some progress on the enabling factors for inclusion. For example, COVID-19 cash transfers by agencies were able to be consistently aligned to government social assistance in refugee-hosting countries around the world given the extra resources and political space that often built on the initial inclusive COVID-19 health response of governments.

With further progress and government collaboration, harmonised area-based programmes covering host and displaced populations become possible, as we are seeing in many of the MENA countries hosting Syrian refugees, which replicate many of the features of the government delivery chain. However, these programmes may not yet facilitate refugee enrolment to social registries or other forms of formal recognition by the government. Eventually, refugee inclusion in government systems recognises rights on par with those of citizens. However even in the well-developed and mature social protection systems there may still be de facto access barriers requiring support, as evidenced in many of the European countries hosting Syrian refugees (UNHCR 2021b).  


The views, thoughts and opinions presented in this blog post belong to its author(s). They are not necessarily shared by and neither by the author’s organisation.




[1] Figures from before the Ukraine War, see UNHCR 2021 – Mid-Year Trends

[2] Refugees and IDPs are covered under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights. These establish the universal human right to social security, and, by extension to social protection. The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees has specific provisions relating to social security and public relief, whilst the New York Declaration in 2016 and the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) in 2018 called for inclusion of refugees into social protection systems.

[3] 'Durable solutions for refugees are voluntary repatriation to the country of origin in safety and dignity, resettlement to a third country and local integration in the country of asylum'. See the practical case of Kenya, for example. 

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
Social Protection Building Blocks: 
  • Policy
    • Coverage
    • Governance and coordination
Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Social protection systems
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Emergency response and Disaster Risk Management
    • Humanitarian assistance
      • Protracted conflict / Forced displacement
  • Humanitarian–social protection nexus
  • Global
The views presented here are the author's and not's