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Why Refugees Need to Make a Living

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Millions have recently fled conflicts in Pakistan and Sri Lanka and the humanitarian community has mobilized to provide food, shelter and medical aid in this moment of crisis.

But what if this moment lasts 17 years -- or longer?

That thought, however unthinkable, is all too likely to become a reality. The majority of refugees are in long-term situations that last, on average, 17 years. Meanwhile, civil conflicts rage on for an average of 15 years, during which time people may become internally displaced at any point and, more often than not, displaced multiple times.

Given the reality of refugee situations, it is imperative that we begin to rethink the role of humanitarian assistance and shift away from handouts and enforced dependency. In the first days and weeks of a refugee crisis, of course the focus should be on providing basic needs and simply keeping people alive. But governments and aid groups must also focus as early and as soon as possible on how to help crisis-affected populations resume their lives and their livelihoods.

Without economic opportunities, the years spent in displacement result in a terrible waste of human potential and the erosion of existing skills. When Burmese refugees in Thailand are still completely dependent on food aid and other humanitarian assistance after 25 years of displacement -- and at a staggering cost of $60 million per year -- something is seriously wrong with our model.

Granted, the Government of Thailand does not allow refugees freedom of movement and the right to work. However, if the international community had insisted that there was no other way and that creating long-term dependency was not an option, maybe the 135,000 refugees still on the Thai-Burma border would be in a very different place today. Maybe they would be feeding themselves, providing for their families and, equally important, learning and practicing new skills that would prepare them for life post-displacement.

Currently, some 45 million people around the world are displaced by armed conflict and human rights abuses. Almost completely dependent on international food assistance and often not allowed to work, they are idle and frustrated. This lack of economic opportunities often forces refugees -- more than half of them women -- to resort to harmful behavior to survive, such as prostitution and trading sex for food.

We know that providing economic opportunities can be an effective means of protecting women from gender-based violence and exploitation. We know that when women earn money it is more likely to be spent on the health, education and nutrition of their children. We know that employed men are less likely to feel emasculated and less likely to take out their frustrations through alcohol abuse and domestic violence.

It is time to act on what we know -- not with poorly thought out and ill-managed economic programs that amount to little more than busywork, but with interventions that are tailored to the local context, that build on the refugees' existing skills, and that match local market demand.

In the midst of a crisis, it is difficult to think 17 months ahead, let alone 17 years. But long after the headlines fade, the refugees we read about will be struggling to survive. How we respond today can make all the difference.