Blog post written by Tsion Tadesse Abebe, Senior Researcher, Migration Programme, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) and Selam Tadesse, Junior Researcher, Horn of Africa Programme, ISS.

Ethiopia is heading to the Global Refugee Forum (GRF), taking place in Geneva from 17 to 18 December as the only African country co-convening the maiden global event together with Costa Rica, Germany, Pakistan and Turkey. This is a deserved recognition to a country known for its long-standing hospitality to refugees which has recently been backed by the adoption of a very progressive refugee proclamation.

The two-day Forum will bring together government representatives, UN agencies, development and humanitarian actors, financial institutions and the private sector. The event is jointly organized by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Government of Switzerland (Swiss Confederation). The GRF is part of the mechanisms of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) aimed at promoting international cooperation to ease burden on host countries with large numbers of refugees. The GCR was affirmed by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 2018. It aims ‘to provide a basis for predictable and equitable burden- and responsibility-sharing among’ UN member states.

The GRF is expected to provide opportunities to mobilise financial and in kind support to refugee host countries. This includes provision of development funding, increased resettlement placements and facilitation of additional legal pathways including through humanitarian and student visas.

Best experiences and lessons learned of the African Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) pilot countries is expected to be featured prominently in the Forum. Seven[i] of the 15 CRRF pilot countries are in Africa. The continent’s best practices include Ethiopia’s revised refugee proclamation that affords refugees freedom of movement, the right to work and documentation. Likewise, Djibouti’s new refugee law provides refugees with access to education and the justice system. Chad also converted all refugee schools into public schools thereby fostering the integration of refugee students in the national system.

The CRRF, which is the implementation framework of the GCR, is not only about refugees but also the communities that host them. This is its unique approach, different from previous refugee response mechanisms, which focused only on refugees. Former similar initiatives failed to succeed for not adequately recognizing the developmental impact of refugee influx on host communities, such as the first International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA I) in 1981 and the second International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA II) in 1984.

Thus, the success of the CRRF depends on its ability to transform the lives of refugees together with and not in isolation from the development aspirations of host communities. Not only will such an approach ensure the sustainability of the comprehensive response but it will also significantly reduce potential tensions that may arise as a result of competition over meagre resources or exclusion of host communities from the process.   

In this respect, for countries such as Ethiopia, GRF offers an opportunity to mobilize international support to be able to beef up its job creation drive for both refugees and the host communities. Given Ethiopia’s high youth unemployment rate and its direct link with the country’s ongoing political woes, advancing the job creation component of the CRRF is very much in line with the country’s national interests and development priorities. The recent establishment of Ethiopia’s Jobs Creation Commission (JCC) attests to this. JCC envisions to ‘create a country where all have access to sustainable jobs’ with a particular focus on the industrial, service and agricultural sectors.  

There is also a growing consensus on the direct correlation between addressing the mass youth unemployment rate in the country and dealing with its growing peace and security concerns. Lack of meaningful economic opportunities has partly contributed in galvanising the youth to the sustained opposition against the government from 2016-2018 that propelled Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to power.

This makes job creation among the top priorities of the government, which requires strong international support.  The CRRF can make huge contribution here since it aims to create job opportunities to refugees and Ethiopian host communities through industrial parks and irrigated agriculture. Both of these sectors are highlighted as priorities of the JCC. The CRRF has also the potential to enhance self-employment through provision of start-up capital.

In this respect, the industrial parks present a very important job creation opportunity for refugee hosting communities. Currently, Ethiopia is reportedly finalizing preparations to start constructing three industrial parks at a cost of US$500 million. Financed by the European Investment Bank and the UK Department for International Development, these parks are expected to create 100,000 jobs, 70% of which will go to Ethiopians and 30% to refugees. If these industrial parks succeed, they are likely to attract more investment, generating more jobs.

It appears, however, that actual construction of the parks has not started yet and this is not an encouraging development. The reasons delaying the construction of the facilities need to be understood and addressed as a matter of urgency. Moreover, the government of Ethiopia should use the GRF and other platforms that may arise to engage relevant partners not just to start construction of the three industrial parks but also to possibly expand the same and explore other projects that could generate mass employment. The Forum should also help the government to attract more investors towards expansion of the industrial park project and facilitate market access. The EU is one potential market as Ethiopia is one the 16 priority countries of the European Commission. The fact that the newly elected president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen made her first oversees visit to Ethiopia, on 07 December 2019, reinforces this. During her visit, the President signed a financial package totalling €170 to support Ethiopia, €10 million of which is earmarked for job creation.  

Second, Ethiopia has committed to offer 10,000 hectares of irrigable land to enable 20,000 refugee and host community households to grow crops, benefiting a total of 100,000 people. Refugees and the communities that host them will cultivate together and share the yields equally. Positive signs are emerging from the pilot irrigation programme in Ethiopia’s Melkadida area, where refugees and members of the host community are developing the first 1,000 hectares of land with support by the IKEA Foundation. In addition to advancing the self-reliance of the direct beneficiaries, successful implementation of the irrigation schemes can contribute towards addressing the food insecurity challenges of the specific communities. Currently, 8.86 million people in Ethiopia require humanitarian aid. 

Building on the experience of the IKEA foundation-supported irrigation scheme, the government of Ethiopia should plan to engage more partners during the GRF to support expansion of the irrigated agriculture schemes. The GCR is expected to officially bring on board new actors into the refugee response, providing host countries like Ethiopia to benefit from fresh financial and in-kind support, including international expertise.

Third, Ethiopia should explore ways of expanding provision of start-up capital and/or kits to create large-scale self-employment opportunities for both refugees and host community members. There are some small-scale experiments here and there across the country, most notably the Youth Education Pack (YEP), which trains Ethiopians and refugees in different skills and provide them with tools and seed money to start their own businesses, individually or in groups.

If properly explored, the self- employment scheme has the potential to employ more people than the industrial parks and the irrigation projects could.  International and regional financial institutions taking part in the GRF could potentially support this kind of initiatives. Lessons could be taken from good practices in Uganda, where refugees and host communities thrive economically together through self-employment.

Low wages, however, pose a formidable challenge towards the job creation aspect of the CRRF implementation in Ethiopia. A recent study indicates that Ethiopian industrial park workers, specifically those in the garment sector, are among the lowest paid in the world, earning 26 USD per month. This has already led to very high worker turn-over. In the first half of the 2017-18 fiscal year, more than half (7,840 of the 14,000 workers) in the Bole Lemi industrial park quit for precisely this reason. The Ethiopian government needs to speed up the enactment of the on-going draft minimum wage policy.

Failing to support the African CRRF pilot countries to expand socio-economic opportunities to refugee host communities, however, leads to increased tendencies of viewing refugees as a security concern. This tendency has already been observed in long term refugee friendly African countries such as Kenya and Tanzania. Kenya, a CRRF pilot country itself, has repeatedly declared its intention to shut the Dadaab refugee camp, viewing the refugees as a security threat. Tanzania’s recent actions also indicate its consideration of refugees as a security threat (despite considering them as an economic asset during the Nyerere period (1964–1985). Despite being one of the initial CRRF pilot countries, Tanzania withdrew from the process in 2018, refusing to ‘borrow money from the World Bank in order to support greater opportunities for refugees’; through the World Bank’s IDA-18 sub-window Tanzania was offered $100 million in loan and grant.  

This emphasis the critical role the GRF should play in facilitating sustainable job opportunities for refugee host communities in front line CRRF pilot countries such as Ethiopia. The more sustainable job opportunities that are created for the host communities, the stronger their support for refugees will be. Above all, the job creation element can make huge contribution in sustaining Ethiopia’s peace and security, a critical requirement to maintain its generous asylum space. Otherwise, there is no guarantee that host communities in Ethiopia will not descend to refugee hostile attitudes. Therefore, the biggest success of the GRF lies in ensuring concrete opportunities for African refugee hosting communities such as in Ethiopia.   

[i] The seven African CRRF pilot countries are Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, as well as the Somalia situation.

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