Here’s how other refugee emergencies can guide government response to the Ukraine crisis

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Björn Gillsäter, Head, World Bank-UNHCR Joint Data Center on Forced Displacement


  • According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are now over 100 million forcibly displaced persons globally.
  • Colombia set the example through its PEP programme, which granted thousands of Venezuelan refugees work permits.
  • Robust research and data are vital to guide evidence-based policy-making on forced displacement and can be very helpful in dealing with the ongoing Ukraine crisis.

As the conflict in Ukraine continues, the world witnesses yet another refugee emergency. Millions of Ukrainians are fleeing their homes to seek asylum in other European countries. But how will these countries cope with this considerable, for some disproportionate, influx of displaced persons? What lessons can decision-makers draw from similar contexts to guide their policy responses? And which elements should influence and shape these policies?

Over the past few years, more than six million refugees and migrants have left Venezuela to escape its escalating political and economic crises. Unsurprisingly, most of them are families with children, pregnant women, the elderly, and persons with disabilities, who endure arduous journeys in search of new homes where they can safely rebuild their lives.

While many Latin American and Caribbean countries have opened their doors to these involuntary migrants, Colombia has been a particularly generous host.

Colombia leads the way

In 2018, Colombia’s President, Juan Manuel Santos, granted two-year renewable permits to over 400,000 people from Venezuela. The PEP, or special permanence permit, grants undocumented Venezuelan immigrants the legal right to work, as well as access to basic public services.

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How is the World Economic Forum supporting refugees?

Since 24 February 2022, over 6 million refugees from Ukraine have crossed borders into neighbouring countries. The war is widely recognised as the worst conflict in Europe since WWII and adds to the estimated 31 million people worldwide who have been displaced across borders as a result of persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations (UNHCR, 2021). Of this, approximately 10 million are of working age, highlighting the centrality of employment and employability to successful integration.

The crisis in Ukraine is unique in terms of the speed and scale at which it has unfolded. However, it is also unprecedented in the legal and institutional response to the crisis. This has brought into sharp focus what is possible for refugee employment and employability with the right enabling environment.

The Refugee Employment and Employability Initiative builds on the momentum associated with supporting refugees from Ukraine to create a basis for system-wide global support from employers for refugees that extends across conflict contexts.

The Initiative has three objectives:

  • to increase employment opportunities for refugees;
  • to expand the range of initiatives that support their employability;
  • to build capability for rapid action and resilience for future refugee crises.

In its first phase, the Initiative is working with the Forum’s Community of Chief Human Resource Officers to understand what member organizations are doing with respect to the employment and employability of refugees. These findings will be used to shape the initiative and identify opportunities for further collaboration in the second phase of the initiative.

Essentially, research on the programme’s impact in 2018 reassured policy-makers that it didn’t affect host communities negatively. This paved the way for the second wave of permits in 2021, granting temporary protected status to all Venezuelans on Colombian territory for ten years and setting an example for other countries facing similar challenges.

According to Felipe Muñoz Gomez, the former Colombian Manager of Border Affairs with Venezuela, the “political decision to introduce the PEP took into consideration the results from the introduction of previous temporary permits, and evidence showing how Colombia benefit from the regularisation and economic inclusion of the Venezuelans, given both the size of that population and their socioeconomic characteristics”.

Economic inclusion benefits all

A recent study showed that Colombia’s PEP programme resulted in extensive improvements for programme beneficiaries relative to those Venezuelans who were not included in the programme: higher consumption per capita (60%) and income (31%), improved physical and mental health (1.8 standard deviations), higher registration rates in the system that assesses vulnerability and awards public transfers (40 percentage points), and improved access to financial services (64.3 percentage points). The programme also led to an increment in labour formalisation of 10 percentage points but induced negligible effects on the formal employment of Colombian workers.

While there is broad public scepticism about the programme (in 2020, 80% of Colombians disapproved of their government’s handling of the Venezuelan crisis), addressing these barriers to Venezuelans’ economic inclusion in a way that also covers host communities will be crucial for the long-term sustainability of the programme.

Data gaps impair good policy-making

Colombia’s evidence-based decisions about the status of refugees are exceptional. In many host countries, there are often significant gaps in the data, which impedes evidence-based policy-making.

With 100 million forcibly displaced persons (FDPs) globally, surpassing the figures that alarmed the global experts and leaders polled in the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Risks Perception Survey, we now have relatively weighty data on the big picture. Crises resulting from “economic hardship, intensifying impacts of climate change, and political instability,” which were only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, have pushed millions more to flee their homes each year.

And yet, forced displacement remains greatly understudied, especially in quantitative research. In policy areas such as education, vaccine development, or climate change, we see random control trials, experimental and quasi-experimental methods used to test policy options, and major research projects that drive decisions, both at a national and global level.

In the field of forced displacement, however, there is paucity in this kind of research – predominantly due to the lack of more granular country data – limiting policy-makers’ ability to craft evidence-based responses to displacement crises in their countries. It seems that FDPs are almost invisible – obscured in the statistical shadows.

Experts focus research agenda on the forcibly displaced

At a research conference earlier this year, hosted by the World Bank-UNHCR Joint Data Centre on Forced Displacement, researchers provided numerous examples of how robust and ambitious studies can directly impact policy, particularly in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.

The conference attendees identified research gaps and recommended more studies about stateless persons in Africa (particularly the Sahel, Sudan, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and displaced children. They also highlighted the need for information in service delivery and integration of displaced populations into national systems rather than creating parallel mechanisms.

The many examples of forced displacement discussed at the Conference allowed the participants to identify the similarities between different displacement contexts and the limits of drawing from lessons without complete contextual understanding. In a joint effort, the research community and policy advisors can identify insights to help host governments of Ukrainian refugees to introduce supportive policy responses while maintaining the solidarity and goodwill of the host populations.

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