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Nothing is more permanent than the temporary: Understanding protracted displacement and people's own responses

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Executive summary

What if displaced people were not forced to live in a perpetual state of waiting? What if they could get support to rebuild their lives with the people they choose, where and how they choose?
The vision of the TRAFIG project is a world where the experience of being displaced is only temporary and where displaced people can quickly rebuild their lives and livelihoods after having been forcibly displaced.

Solutions to displacement do not necessarily look like what the policy world provides: placed-based support, for example in refugee camps, where people must wait until an opportunity to resettle or return to their home arises. Such solutions fail to recognise that displaced people’s needs are not tied to a particular place but to people. Our research has confirmed that refugees, internally displaced people (IDPs) and other migrants are embedded in multiple social constellations, such as families, neighbourhoods, religious communities or other solidarity groups.
Through these personal networks, they find protection, shelter, livelihood support, a sense of belonging and opportunities to migrate to other places. In some cases, these constellations stretch across several places, even across multiple countries.

Being a part of these networks does not guarantee a better future; however, our research has shown that displaced people's connections to other people are an essential resource for a sustainable and long-term solution to their precarious situation.

This report brings together the central findings of the TRAFIG project’s empirical study in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Tanzania, Jordan, Pakistan, Greece, Italy and Germany. Overall, we engaged with more than 3,120 people. Our study centred around five factors we believe help or hinder people from moving out of protracted displacement:

  1. governance regimes, 2) social practices and livelihoods of refugees, 3) refugee networks and movements, 4) intergroup relations between refugees and hosts, and 5) development incentives for hosting refugees. In this report, we present multiple findings within each theme, which can be used to influence change for displaced people in the future.

First, when we looked at governance regimes, we found that restrictive regulations often force displaced people into (semi)irregularity as they cope with their protracted state of displacement. Formal support is often tied to staying put in one place (e.g., a refugee camp), which goes against displaced people's need for small-scale, national or international mobility to build a life. Here, governance regimes tend to hinder rather than help displaced people from exiting a protracted state.

Second, our research showed that displaced people who were most dependent on humanitarian assistance and lived in refugee camps were also the most marginalised. Everyday lives and livelihoods are at risk for those with no legal entitlements and those stranded in camps. But they are not the only ones: People with no networks to help them move out of their precarious situation also risk permanent 'limbo'. In general, a higher degree of legal insecurity, which is reflected in weak protection standards and no or only temporary residency status, inevitably leads to a higher degree of socio-economic exclusion and marginalisation.

A third key finding is that personal networks—family ties in particular—decisively shape displaced people's journeys to places of refuge. Functioning and trustful network relations are also necessary to move out of refugee camps and to benefit from circular mobility. Networks across multiple places and countries have the potential to lift displaced people out of protractedness.
However, networks and mobility are not stand-alone solutions to protracted displacement but only 'stepping-stones' to finding lasting solutions.

Fourth, forced displacement inevitably changes and often challenges existing social relations at a place. We were able to see patterns in how different groups interacted and related, which were marked by distinct forms of dependence, reciprocity and disconnection. It became clear that displaced people encounter difficulties forging relationships when being in a (prolonged) state of waiting and uncertainty. Finding a way to build alliances is critical for displaced people to have a sense of belonging among the people they live.

Finally, TRAFIG's empirical research saw cases where local markets and populations benefited from long-lasting displacement situations. Acknowledging displaced people's translocal connections can contribute to creating new markets, employment and future opportunities for people in various places.

Moreover, we noted the significance of gender and class-based differences, mental health as well as political dynamics when understanding people’s own responses to protracted displacement.

From the reflections of hundreds of displaced people themselves, we see that the experience of protracted displacement is like a labyrinth: There are endless turns, hurdles, barriers and dead ends. This labyrinth is a side effect, if not a deliberate consequence of policy choices, which means that it can also be changed. Instead of single, placed-based solutions, displaced people need multiple options to better navigate and move out of the labyrinth. People-based solutions begin with recognising people’s own preferences, their mobility needs and their networks. They reflect the reality that many displaced people already live translocal or transnational lives. Host governments as well as humanitarian and development actors should adjust their responses to this reality to better support displaced people in finding solutions that are, in fact, permanent.