Thrive or Survive? Explaining Variation in Economic Outcomes for Refugees

Alexander Betts, Naohiko Omata, Louise Bloom

Journal on Migration and Human Security, Volume 5(4) Pages 716 – 743, November 28, 2017


The paper focuses on three questions: (1) what makes the economic lives of refugees distinctive from other populations; (2) what explains variation in refugees’ income levels; and (3) what role does entrepreneurship play in shaping refugees’ economic outcomes? In doing so, the authors seek to inform interventions that enhance market-based opportunities for refugees by building on the “skills, capacities and agency of refugees themselves” rather than focusing only on their vulnerabilities. The paper draws on data from a survey of 2,213 refugees in Uganda located in Kampala, protracted camps (Nakivale and Kyangwali settlements), and emergency camps (Rwamwanja). The authors argue that refugees are distinctive because they face different institutional barriers and distortions in their economic lives compared to nationals or other migrants. They suggest that differences in refugees’ income levels can be explained by a number of variables including: regulatory context, education, occupation, social networks, gender, and the number of years spent in exile. They argue that that entrepreneurship explains “outliers” within the refugee community, i.e. why some refugees have significantly higher incomes.

The authors propose the following implications for policy and practice: (i) support market-based interventions that build on what already exists; (ii) rethink the role of the private sector, recognizing that displaced people can also be considered part of the private sector; (iii) create an enabling environment by nurturing the capacities of refugees through improved opportunities for education, skills development, access to microcredit and financial markets, business incubation, better transportation links and infrastructure, and internet access and connectivity; (iv) invest in research and data on the economic lives of refugees across different regulatory environments, different phases of displacement crises, and different categories of displacement (e.g. refugees versus IDPs); and (v) analyze the political context and create more favorable state policies.