Migration, forced displacement and social protection

The purpose of this paper is to set out a common framework, language and understanding of the relevance of social protection to different groups of migrants and forcibly displaced people.

There are an estimated 244 million people currently living in a country other than that of their birth. This group of people includes wealthier migrants, able to access high levels of livelihood security and protection in their place of destination, as well as those moving away from situations of extreme poverty and insecurity, who are often unprotected upon their arrival, and may lack documents to establish resident or work status in the country they currently live in. It also includes 21.3 million refugees who have fled war and persecution, as well as other populations that have been displaced as a result of insecurity, natural disaster or the effects of climate change.  In addition to this there are estimated to be 763 million internal migrants. This figure includes internal labour, family and student migration (all often involving movements between rural areas and cities), as well as 38 million internally displaced people (IDPs) who have been forced to leave their homes.

Social protection is fundamentally a policy response to vulnerability. Given the different vulnerabilities that mobile populations face, there will be a range of different social protection responses to these. This paper provides a framework for considering the potential role that social protection interventions – or the lack of social protection interventions – can play in terms of precipitating, directing or halting movement (e.g. from a country of origin without a functioning social protection system).  It also considers the different forms of social protection that may be needed by different groups at different stages of their journey and after arrival in a place of destination. Legal or illegal entry or presence in a territory or state is just one factor that influences access to social protection. Other factors, including operational, political and financial factors that affect coverage, adequacy and portability of benefits may restrict the scope of social protection in practice and this is also considered.

This paper considers the framing of social protection in relation to forcibly displaced populations (refugees, asylum seekers and IDPs) and low-income labour migrants. We take as a starting point Devereux and Sabates-Wheeler’s (2004) definition of social protection as ‘all public and private initiatives that provide income or consumption transfers to the poor, protect the vulnerable against livelihood risks, and enhance the social status and rights of the marginalised; with the overall objective of reducing the economic and social vulnerability of poor, vulnerable and marginalised groups.’ This definition includes a focus on economic welfare, which is standard in traditional definitions of social protection, but it also recognizes the non-separability of the economic from the social and political determinants of vulnerability. It therefore broadens the scope of provision to ensure that the standard social protection interventions, such as a cash transfer or food provision to the most vulnerable, will be accompanied by complementary interventions to ensure access to that cash or food.  For instance, if a migrant is unaware of their rights and unable to read the forms necessarily to obtain provision, then sensitization of rights and language barriers will need to complement social protection provisioning.

It is important to recognize that many forms of social protection are informal (relying on community, kin, clan or other forms of reciprocity). This is especially the case in less developed countries where the majority of forcibly displaced both come from and are hosted, and where formal state-based social protection is weak. This paper acknowledges the importance of these forms of social protection, but is primarily focused on assessing the impact of formal social protection programmes on forcibly displaced and low-income migrant populations.  Formal social protection is normally conceived of as state-led, but in certain contexts – particularly when considering forced displacement – non-state internationally led social protection is actually the norm.

The rest of this paper comprises two sections. First, we define and describe the specific groups and populations of interest in this paper, laying out the drivers and scale of movement as well as the vulnerabilities that these groups face at origin, during journeys and at destination. The second section describes a social protection lens and framework for understanding and engaging with the types of mobile populations of interest here. The paper concludes by offering some thoughts on current gaps in our understanding of how social protection can apply to migrants and populations of forcibly displaced people, and identifying areas where further work is needed.

Suggested citation

Long, K. & Sabates-Wheeler, R. (2017).  Migration, Forced Displacement and Social Protection. (GSDRC Rapid Literature Review). Birmingham, UK: University of Birmingham.