Refugees can boost surrounding communities

Refugees can be an economic boost, not burden, to the communities that host them, a new study by the United Nations concludes.

The benefit is bigger if refugees are given cash stipends instead of food rations, according to a joint project by the World Food Programme and researchers at the University of California Davis. The team studied Congolese refugees living in three different camps in Rwanda.

“Our research found that local communities see very real economic benefits from hosting refugee camps, regardless of the type of food assistance refugees received, but it was clear that cash-based food assistance for refugees translates into a larger boost for the people who live near the camps,” said the study’s lead author, J. Edward Taylor.

Taylor, a professor of agriculture at UC Davis, said the team found that real income generated for the surrounding community was larger than the humanitarian assistance received by the refugee, “and if the refugee is receiving cash, the impact of that assistance can nearly double.”

When refugees receive monthly food rations, they often sell part of it (at rates lower than market cost) and use the cash to buy vegetables and other fresh products.

Increasing refugees’ purchasing power

“When refugees receive cash instead, it not only gives them more control and choice over what they eat, but also increases their purchasing power, and therefore increases the strength of their contribution to the local economy,” said Ernesto Gonzalez, a co-author of the study who works on cash-related assistance in the World Food Programme’s regional bureau in Nairobi.

The World Food Programme does warn, however, that food rations are still needed in camps without functioning markets or where food resources are scarce.

Rwanda hosts more than 150,000 refugees in five camps across the country.

But the findings are relevant to a much broader global community, as Europe struggles to accommodate and integrate unprecedented numbers of refugees reaching its shores.

A record 65.3 million people worldwide were displaced from their homes in 2015, according to the U.N. refugee agency, the UNHCR — a 10 percent increase over the preceding year. Half of them are children.