Towards a Refugee Livelihoods Approach – Findings from Cameroon, Jordan, Malaysia and Turkey

Caitlin Wake and Veronique Barbelet

Journal of Refugee Studies, Volume 33, Issue 1 (2020), Pages 125–142


This article discusses research on the livelihoods of non-camp refugees in four protracted displacement contexts: Cameroon, Jordan, Malaysia and Turkey. The research explores how different policy environments and institutional capacities affect refugee livelihoods. The authors draw heavily on the work of Levine (2014), who developed a practical methodology for conducting research using a sustainable-livelihoods framework, focusing on first understanding what refugees are already doing (their goals, livelihood strategies, actions and livelihood outcomes) and how this is shaped by their perceptions of risk and possibilities, and the context in which they live. Data was collected through in-depth, qualitative interviews with refugees, as well as the individuals, networks and institutions refugees engaged with during displacement. Rather than presenting the findings of the research, the article explores how the methodology enabled the identification of challenges and opportunities to support refugee livelihoods.

Key points:

  • While there was some common understanding between aid actors and refugees of their livelihood opportunities and challenges, this shared understanding did not translate into programming and policies, due to: (a) resource constraints, e.g. in Cameroon interventions provided too little money to make a difference in refugees’ lives; (b) the fact that refugees were not permitted to work, e.g. in Malaysia interventions tended to be ad hoc and small-scale so as not to attract negative attention to refugees; and (c) the difficulty of programming longer-term interventions in refugee situations defined as emergencies, e.g. in Cameroon humanitarians were prioritizing life-saving activities, while many more Central African refugees were seeking ways to sustain themselves and their families beyond aid.
  • By starting from the perspectives of refugees and their perceptions, the research was able to question the way aid actors tend to qualify and define displacement situations over time and highlight that such qualifications and definitions may or may not be in line with refugees’ own perception of the context. The assumption on which aid programming is based—that refugees are generally at their most vulnerable at the onset of displacement and build resilience over time—does not fit the more complex realities of the refugees’ experience. For some refugees (e.g. in Cameroon), they experienced more stable situations at the onset of their displacement and saw their situation worsen with time due to age, loss of capital and the exhaustion of informal support from personal networks.
  • Subjective factors in refugees’ perceptions—as opposed to facts—were significant for livelihood outcomes. Refugees’ own understanding of policies, risks and livelihoods possibilities is what they base their actions and strategies on, e.g. in Jordan and Turkey many refugees reacted cautiously or pessimistically to the introduction of work permits, perceiving a number of risks including the risks of losing assistance, losing income because of taxes, and being exploited, as the power remained with employers.
  • Gender—both as a feature of identity and gender norms in country of origin and asylum—affected how refugees perceived livelihood risks and opportunities, thus leading to different livelihood outcomes.
  • There is value in using this approach for operational purposes, designing programs and interventions. Livelihood assessments tend to rely on more technical studies (e.g. value-chain analysis and market analysis), which while valuable and complementary, miss the link to how refugees experience, perceive and take such realities into account in their decision-making.


In conclusion, the authors emphasize the importance of putting refugee perceptions and actions at the center of programs, interventions and policies. They also highlight the need to change the way livelihoods interventions for refugees are thought of: moving away from supplying interventions to supporting refugees in the strategies and actions they are already adopting and working to remove both structural and other obstacles they face.