Protracted displacement: uncertain paths to self-reliance in exile

Nicholas Crawford, John Cosgrave, Simone Haysom & Nadine Walicki


This report maps the global state of protracted displacement, examining patterns and trends in numbers, geographic spread and funding. It notes that at the end of 2014, half of all refugees had been in exile for over ten years. Displacement is increasingly an urban and dispersed phenomenon, with settled camps becoming the exception. Seven countries – Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkey, Palestine and Jordan – host more than 50% of all refugees.  The study reviews current evidence on support for self-reliance and investments in livelihoods amongst people in protracted displacement and suggests ways forward.

Key messages

  • A record 60 million people were displaced from their homes at the end of 2014. Once displaced for
    six months, a refugee is likely to be displaced for at least three years, and protracted displacement is also a major phenomenon among internally displaced people.
  • Most displacement crises persist for years: fewer than one in 40 refugee crises are resolved within
    three years, and most last for decades.
  • Governments and aid agencies need to recognise this protractedness from the outset, accepting that options for ‘durable solutions’ are often closed and weaving humanitarian assistance quickly into broader national and regional poverty and development investments.
  • Displaced people themselves often find paths to sustainable livelihoods: aid agencies need to better understand how to support these initiatives.

Aid agencies seeking to promote self-reliance and livelihoods amongst people in protracted displacement have progressed from models of assistance largely focused on care and maintenance towards a more holistic response to the challenges and opportunities available to displaced people. Because of insufficient or inconsistent funding, care and maintenance regimes generally have not provided a stable platform on which beneficiaries could progress towards self-reliance. When it comes to more direct interventions to support self-reliance and livelihoods, such as vocational training and income generating projects supported by grants and loans, the research literature reveals a panoply of small-scale uncoordinated and unsustainable interventions, with inadequate technical and managerial expertise, poor links to markets and short-term and unreliable funding.

Evidence that the economic dynamism of displaced people can have positive effects for host populations and states has also led to a consensus around advocacy for displaced people: encouraging access to livelihoods (e.g. work permits or freedom of movement) is not just a human rights issue, but also offers practical economic and social returns. While host states and local administrations have been slow to embrace more enabling policy frameworks, humanitarian and development agencies have begun to introduce programmes in support of self-reliance and livelihoods that appreciate the complexity of livelihood strategies open to displaced people, the barriers they face and the steps they are taking on their own.

The study presents a pilot tool to begin understanding the opportunities for self-reliance and livelihood assistance for displaced people. It is a basic typology for where assistance is needed and what kind of assistance may be best suited to the situation at hand. The typology examines four themes that affect people’s ability to seek self-reliance and livelihood solutions:

  • the legal framework and protection environment;
  • access to markets and the private sector;
  • the capacities, resources and assets of the displaced; and
  • the environment for external intervention.

For each situation of protracted displacement, each of the four themes is assigned a numerical score ranging from 0 to 60, based on a checklist of questions. The aggregate score provides an overall estimate of how receptive that displacement crisis would be to external interventions in support of self-reliance and livelihoods.


Crawford, N., Cosgrave, J.,  Haysom, S. & Walicki, N. (2015). Protracted displacement: uncertain paths to self-reliance in exile. (HPG Commissioned Report.) London: ODI