Anood from Jordan and Salma from Syria work at a Syrian-owned food processing factory Jordan. The country is now home to more than 650,000 of the 5 million refugees displaced by the Syrian conflict. Photo by: Bea Arscott / DfID / CC BY

Gloria Anzula wanted to open a salon from the moment she arrived to the outskirts of Bogota four years ago. That’s not why she came; her family fled their home in Tolima facing threats of extortion and the forced recruitment of their older children by armed groups. Since being displaced, she enrolled in three different beauty academies and worked in a salon in Bogota to try and support her four children. With life’s complications though, she never managed to finish her training and become a certified beautician.

That changed a few months ago, when Anzula was offered a place in a certification course run by a local NGO called Corporación Dios Es Amor. With the help of the U.N. refugee agency’s Transitional Solutions Initiative, she finally built a salon on the main dirt road of her neighborhood, an informal settlement called Altos de la Florida.

Four days after opening, Anzula surveyed the one-room salon and recounted business so far. “I’ve had a few clients so far,” she said, including one all the way from the main city, Soacha, that sits down the road from Altos de la Florida. She was confident there would be more soon. “I really like to talk, and that’s what people like when they go to the hairdresser.”

Anzula’s new livelihood is part of a growing push, here in Colombia and globally, to help displaced persons integrate where they are, rather than waiting for them to return — in this case to rural areas. This so-called durable solution includes helping the displaced find work or create a business, ensuring safe housing, and facilitating access to services such as health and education. In time, the IDPs or refugees are meant to become full members of their host communities.

The idea of integration is a decade old, but recent events have upgraded it from a pilot concept to a priority strategy. Global displacement is at its highest level since World War II, and the vast majority of the displaced see no prospect of returning home. Since relocation and resettlement will only be possible for a few, relief agencies and some governments are trying to create livelihoods for the displaced in their host communities.

“Integration is good for everyone — it is certainly a necessity for the refugee because they just need it. Usually they don’t come with money and they have to earn an income,” said Philippe Fargues, head of Migration Policy Center, a think tank based in Florence, Italy. “It is also good for the receiving community because [the displaced person] will contribute to the cost of their own presence,” Fargues added.

Despite a consensus among development practitioners and academics, however, integration faces a host of critics and challenges in practice. Many host governments insist that return is the best option, and public opinion often agrees. Even in cases in which there is agreement over the strategy, integration is a complex process that requires inputs from nearly every civic actor, from security forces to finance ministries to local civil society. Coordination is paramount, but often lacking.

Two crises in particular are now testing the feasibility of integration as a long-term strategy. Jordan is now home to more than 650,000 of the 5 million refugees displaced by the Syrian conflict. It has recently granted them limited access to the labor market in exchange for international financing from the World Bank and other donors. A continent away, Colombia — home to the world’s largest internally displaced population after Syria — has just signed a peace agreement with the country’s largest rebel group. Post-conflict plans call for land restitution and return where possible, but the majority of IDPs say they would prefer to stay put. Securing their futures in host communities will be vital to building sustainable peace.

Colombia: Peacetime returns?

Colombia may offer the best chance of any global crisis to prove integration is possible, aid practitioners there say. Just over 6 million of the country’s 48 million people are displaced internally, most of them living in urban centers.

“Colombia is a country where you can reintegrate millions of people,” said Martin Gottwald, the country representative of the Office of the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees, which has prioritized integration in its discussions with the government.

Pinpointing the root of Colombia’s displacement is key to understanding whether IDPs are likely to return. Like Anzula in Soacha, most IDPs now in urban areas fled rural homes out of concern for security. And although dynamics in the country have vastly improved, the conflict has thrown up a series of hindrances to return. Fear is a major barrier; many of the displaced come from areas of the country where armed groups still exert some control. Land tenure is also not guaranteed. As armed groups occupied large swathes of territory in recent decades, they appropriated and at times resold rural land. Many rural areas lack public services.

The recent peace agreement finalized between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia seeks to address some of those obstacles. A land restitution body is working to reinstate rightful owners to their land, and the victims restitution agency will provide additional support to some returnees. The agreement also calls for vast rural investment in services and the creation of a land fund to help country dwellers with insufficient access to territory.

“The message is that the state will help you so you can go back to your land,” the government’s land restitution director Ricardo Sabogal Urrego told Devex.

Despite the promises of assistance, however, recent surveys indicate that the vast majority — as many as 75 percent — of IDPs do not want to return home, according to UNHCR.

“In Colombia, it’s more realistic to talk about integration in urban centers, that’s the main solution,” Gottwald said.

Securing a livelihood is the first priority for integration efforts here. Many IDPs live in informal settlements where the economy is also ad hoc and jobs are scarce. Many Soacha residents travel into Bogota, jammed onto public buses and stuck in traffic for three to four hours a day. When Anzula worked at the Bogota salon, she had a 90 minute commute each way.

There is no legal impediment to IDPs finding work here, but new arrivals often lack the network to secure work or build a business. Living in undocumented residences and without bank accounts, they struggle to access credit, making livelihood support programs vital in the early stages.

Local authorities here are interested in integration but say they need more resources in order to help. According to the most recent census from 2005, Soacha has a population of just under 400,000. But NGOs working in the community estimate the true number is nearly 1 million. Since national disbursements are allocated based on official figures, the city’s services are seriously underfunded. The mayor’s office is now pushing for a new census that would include IDPs and informal settlements.

In the meantime, local authorities have started formalizing land titles in improvised settlements. Neighborhoods such as Altos de la Florida expanded rapidly during the the last two decades, when displaced Colombians flooded into the cities. Much of the land they are built on was never bought or sold, but occupied de facto.

Initial efforts to formalize titles in Altos have moved slowly and stirred community conflicts. In pockets of the settlement, clear street signs and numbers are posted — indications that the municipality has reconciled the area. But disputes remain. A neighbor has already filed a court complaint against Anzula’s salon, arguing that it was built on private land.

The complainant, Anzula said, has tried to target her since she arrived — part of a broader stigma against IDPs within the host community. “Here you can’t say that you’re displaced, because people will be very hard with you,” she said.

Resolving these local issues will have big implications, analysts and human rights groups say: “Peace depends on support to millions of displaced Colombians,” the Norwegian Refugee Council argued in its statement welcoming the peace agreement.

Armed groups and illicit trafficking operations are increasingly turning to displaced urban communities as their foothold in the countryside wanes. “There is the strong possibility that the conflict will become urban and more criminal, which will have a humanitarian impact that will be as great as the armed conflict,” a recent report by the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Center warned.

In Altos, residents live under the constant threats of recruitment, drug trafficking, and the “inoculation tax” — a protection fee armed groups charge local businesses and residents. With unreliable sources of income, a lack of public services, and no security, IDPs have few mechanisms to resist such coercion. That may remain the case until they have rebuilt their new lives in the city.

Jordan: A struggle to find inclusion

If Colombia offers optimism about integration strategies, Jordan’s experience sounds a note of caution. The international community has pushed hard for the country’s government to allow Syrian refugees to enter the labor market, which it did in a limited way this year. But the strategy has so far yielded few results because of ongoing political concerns, bureaucratic and economic obstacles, and complexities in public opinion.

“Integration is not seen as something that is desirable by the receiving country,” said Fargues. “NGOs and the international community dealing with refugees consider rightly that integration is something that should be done, but it’s not something that is considered by many states as the best strategy.”

Until this year, the more than 650,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan had no legal access to the job market. When they started to arrive in 2011, unemployment was already high, at 14 percent, among locals. Many Syrians took up informal employment, accepting low salaries with no legal rights or guarantees.

The international community pushed the Jordanian government to change its policy, linking financing, aid, and trade deals to the legal employment of Syrian refugees. In February, the World Bank’s new Jordan Compact offered $300 million in support for job creation initiatives, provided that the government grant Syrian refugees the possibility of obtaining work permits. The bank extended another $100 million in April, as the government waived work permit fees for refugees. Employers in certain industries can now hire Syrians without paying the typical costs associated with foreign workers.  

Additionally, the European Union in July updated the rules of origin in its free trade agreement with Jordan. Exporters in 52 product groups who wish to enjoy preferential access to the bloc now need to employ Syrian refugees as at least 15 percent of their workforce, which will rise to 25 percent within three years.

“If you see things from outside, the policy is encouraging the Syrian refugees to join the labor market and also encouraging employers to hire them. If you see the pure mathematics, it’s good,” said Tareq Abu Qaoud, head of BetterWork Jordan, an alliance between the International Labor Organization and the International Finance Corp. aimed at building quality jobs in the garment sector. “But in reality it hasn’t gone smoothly for many reasons,” he continued.

As of June, just over 12,000 work permits had been issued to Syrian refugees — a sliver of the working-age refugee population. Many industries have struggled to attract refugees, and the Labor Ministry spokesman recently told Al-Monitor it is “not easy to convince” refugees to apply for permits.

Only some occupations have been opened up to refugees, with a focus on those jobs that Jordanians generally don’t prefer. The government has also promised to create some 600,000 new jobs — a third of which would be for Syrians. But those opportunities may be years in the making.

Despit the waived fees, informal Syrian workers remain more attractive to some employers. Refugees’ competitive advantage over Jordanian candidates is that they can accept lower-than-minimum wage. Moreover, many Syrians also work a combination of odd jobs. If they applied for official work permits, they would need to commit to a single employer who would bear the responsibility for their legal status.

Abu Qaoud suspects a complex mix of social factors also contributes to the challenges. In the garment industry, for example, factories currently employ about two-thirds expatriate workers, largely from Southeast Asia. Syrians could theoretically replace some of those workers without impacting Jordanian jobs. But employers are loathe to make the swap since most Syrians in the country have family commitments unlike the single, male migrant workers now, he said.

Many Syrians came to Jordan from rural areas and have been less attracted to industrial work. A recent ILO study found that some 60 percent of refugees over the age of 15 never completed basic schooling, a fact that limits their job prospects.

But Jordan’s biggest challenge in integration may well be the outlook for the host community. The same ILO study found that unemployment among Jordanians has risen from 14 percent to 22 percent between 2011 and 2014. Labor quality has also declined, it found, since many employers have relaxed their benefits and salaries for informal Syrian laborers.

“At the end what will matter above all is what happens at a local level,” said Fargues. Irrespective of livelihoods, local communities will decide whether and how they allow Syrians to integrate into society. NGOs and aid agencies can only try to make the adjustment easier.

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About the author

  • Dickenson beth full

    Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is a former associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.