Starting with Peace: On Humanitarian Assistance
in Migration-Impacted Communities
By Nick Acosta
July 13, 2018

UNHCR estimates that there are 65.6 million forcibly displaced people throughout the world, 22.5 million of which qualify as refugees. As the global refugee crisis continues to grow, migrant populations are in desperate need of stable, long-term refugee assistance programs that garner input from local populations as well as the international community. However, refugee assistance remains a complicated and dynamic issue for host countries. This is especially true in environments that are already strained by local concerns about stablility.

The influx of refugees, IDP’s, and immigrant populations can often exacerbate pre-existing challenges being faced by host communities. Access to scarce resources – land, healthcare, food, and humanitarian assistance – is further complicated by the arrival of displaced persons. Such is the case in Uganda, where local host communities have expressed concerns that refugees from South Sudan are bringing disease into the country and are stretching thin an already limited amount of farming land. Uganda has been praised for its relatively positive treatment of refugees, but it is not immune to the stresses that are brought on by new arrivals.

Limited farming land and other scarce resources are a major driver of conflict among increasingly dense communities, as host populations may respond to new arrivals with a myriad of discriminatory behaviors. These can range from social prejudices to acts of violence. In return, refugee populations may be inspired to pursue retributive or retaliatory violence. As this back-and-forth continues, the successful delivery of humanitarian services is incredibly limited. The exchange mechanisms of prejudice and violence need to be broken if any meaningful humanitarian assistance is going to take place.

But, often times, humanitarian service delivery also acts as a source of conflict. Many Ugandans are concerned that South Sudanese refugees have access to UNHCR food rations during a time when many Northern Ugandans are struggling to feed their families due to famine. While these narratives may be an honest expression of concern for Northern Ugandans, they have facilitated and supported anti-refugee campaigns and discriminatory practices throughout Uganda.

In spite of these narratives and the persistent cycles of violence between host and refugee populations, peacebuilding and conflict resolution remain an overlooked facet of most refugee assistance models. While the focus tends to be on garnering more funding for medicine, food, water, and other tangible forms of humanitarian assistance, there is little attention paid to the ways that these services are limited by identity-based conflict. This is not meant to diminish the need for these tangibles, but simply to point out that long-term success in migration-impacted communities will depend on mitigating conflicts between host and refugee populations.

Refugee assistance programming, if interested in long-term success, needs to consider the value-add of peacebuilding and conflict resolution. It is in the best interest of refugees, host communities, and humanitarian assistance organizations to support the work of peacebuilding programs as a supplement to their humanitarian service programs. This includes conflict resolution trainings, building networks of community influencers across identity divides, and counter-narrative programming. Conflict divisions between host and refugee populations cannot be allowed to win the day in spaces where productive and collaborative relationships are necessary for humanitarian relief.

The views, thoughts, and opinions in this blog belong solely to the author and are not representative of an official position or endorsement by the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD).