This report examines the impact of refugees on host communities in Ethiopia. As of January 31, 2024, Ethiopia was hosting more than 970,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, 99 percent of them from South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Sudan (UNHCR, 2024). Most live in camps located in five regional states: Afar, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, the Somali Regional State (Somali Region), and Tigray, near the borders of their respective countries of origin. Apart from Tigray, these are the least developed states in the country, and the refugee camps tend to be in the least-developed areas of these states.

Ethiopia is in the process of making significant changes to its refugee policies, including the adoption of a new refugee proclamation in 2019, with a view to transitioning from a purely camp-based approach toward a more sustainable response that enables refugees to become more self-reliant and integrated into society and the economy. Ethiopia has also made pledges to help refugees gain greater mobility, improve access to services, especially education, expand access to livelihoods, jobs, and irrigable land, and facilitate the local integration of long-term refugees.

Field research for this report was carried out in four refugee-hosting regions—Addis Ababa, Benishangul-Gumuz, Gambella, and Somali Region—using a combination of qualitative research instruments. At each location, data were collected using semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions, key informant interviews, and a collection of life histories. Community consultations were also carried out to verify the data collected.

Main findings:

  • The social impacts of displacement are shaped by the unique context of each refugee-hosting region, including its history of displacement, settlement patterns, interactions between communities, and responses to displacement. Additionally, individual and community experiences are influenced by factors such as class, age, nationality, ethnicity, and gender. In Gambella, the social and political context is particularly complex due to a history of conflict over land and political power, with the presence of refugees playing a significant role in these dynamics.
  • Distinguishing between refugees and hosts in Ethiopia is challenging due to long- standing cross-border mobility, economic connections, shared kinship, language, and ethnicity, and fluid national identity. Host communities have emerged in response to the arrival of refugees, creating new opportunities for commerce and trade. Intragroup conflict among hosts and refugees can significantly impact the social dynamics of displacement, particularly in regions with preexisting tensions among various ethnic While refugees are generally poorer and live in inferior housing, they have access to water, sanitation, health, and education services that are on par with or better than host communities. In some areas, host communities may be more deprived than refugees, particularly in Gambella and the Somali Region.
  • Overall, the arrival of refugees and large-scale humanitarian operations have led to the expansion of commercial activity and trade in refugee-hosting areas. Refugees also bring skills in construction, interior-decoration, and information technology to the hosting areas, contributing to cultural changes. Refugees and hosts that can access resources through social networks are better able to benefit from the economic transformation of refugee-hosting areas. Remittances received by refugees create demand for local businesses, but some hosts perceive them to be inequitable and believe they have caused local inflation and increased khat and alcohol consumption, especially in Addis Ababa. The economic relationships between refugee and host communities are delicately balanced, with changes to the legal regime likely to transform these dynamics.
  • Accessing reliable income-earning opportunities is a challenge for both refugees and hosts, with significant differences between urban and rural areas. Refugee livelihoods are most constrained in Gambella and Benishangul, leading to contestation over resources, environmental degradation, insecurity, and theft. Refugees rely more on aid, while hosts primarily earn a livelihood from agriculture and wage-earning Livelihood patterns are highly gendered, with women and girls disproportionately involved in petty trade and collecting wood and materials from forests, making them vulnerable to gender-based violence. The presence of refugees has increased pressure on the local environment, leading to tensions between refugees and hosts.
  • Generally, refugees and hosts enjoy positive relationships, but there are significant differences between the groups. Somali refugees report having the best relationships with host community members, while South Sudanese are least likely to report positive relationships with hosts. During periods of social tension, ethnolinguistic and gender identities become more salient, leading to interethnic tensions and gender- based violence affecting women from both host and refugee communities.
  • Repeated social and material interactions between refugees and hosts shape the relationship and build trust between communities. Refugees and hosts interact through trade, religious ceremonies, social and sporting events, and when accessing shared social services. Trade and meetings in markets is the most important form of social interaction in camp contexts, and intermarriage plays an important role in creating social connections between communities. Instances of localized insecurity, including petty theft and violence, were noted in each of the study sites, with the most significant and widespread issues in Gambella.
  • The impacts of displacement are gendered, with differentiated impacts on men and women in terms of access to services, health, livelihood opportunities, and victimization. The presence of refugees and relief operations is sometimes associated with improvement in the access to services for women, and NGOs and international organizations have raised community awareness about women’s rights, child marriage, and early pregnancy.
  • The presence of refugees in the research sites has led to improved access to services, particularly in education and health. However, there are tensions around perceived inequities in access to and quality of services for both refugees and hosts, except in Addis Ababa where both groups use integrated public While none of the three types of services provided to refugees—water, education, and health—are fully integrated across the research sites, hosts and refugees can access services such as schools, hospitals, and water sources that are meant for the other group to varying degrees. Refugees would like greater access to electricity, finance, and justice. Even though hosts recognize the role of refugees in the expansion of service delivery, inequities in the quality of services that can be accessed by hosts and refugees remain sources of tension, especially due to the real and perceived environmental, economic, and social pressures associated with hosting refugees.

The report concludes with several policy implications. It notes that support for refugee livelihoods and self-reliance might lead to tensions with host communities due to increased competition over trade, jobs, and land. This requires carefully calibrated responses that include targeted support programs for economically marginalized groups. It notes that creating greater and more extended opportunities for interaction and exchange is likely to help build intergroup trust. Improving access to health, education and water services should continue to be a policy priority, and refugees have also expressed a desire for greater access to justice delivery mechanisms, electricity, and financial services. The report emphasizes the benefits of integrated service delivery to mitigate perceived inequities and grievances around differential access to services. Moreover, shared services facilitate social interaction between refugees and hosts and can be a factor in improving intergroup relationships. Policies need to be sensitive to the differential impacts of displacement, by addressing adverse impacts on groups with the lowest access to resources and social networks, whether refugees or hosts. Finally, the needs of refugees and displacement-affected communities must be integrated into national and local government development planning.