Should I stay or should I go?

Nick van Praag • 30 January 2018

Images of refugees and migrants heading to Europe have all but disappeared from TV screens and newspapers in the last couple of years, but many desperate people remain in limbo along what was once called the migrant trail. They may be out of sight but they have plenty on their minds as they weigh their limited options. To better understand the factors that influence their thinking, throughout 2017 Ground Truth Solutions surveyed more than 4,000 refugees and migrants in Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, as well as Austria, the anteroom to Germany, the top country of destination.

In our surveys for the Mixed Migration Platform, we found that after fleeing conflict at home, people tend to feel relatively safe in countries along the migration routes, especially when they feel welcomed by the host population. But in Iraq and Lebanon, where their situation remains dire, most people say the humanitarian programmes are inadequate in meeting their most important needs. Economic opportunities and the sense of empowerment they provide are scarce, and people lack trustworthy information to make informed decisions about their next steps. Now would be a good time to learn from such feedback and address frustrations before they fester.

Priority needs

A key question in every humanitarian crisis is whether people’s main needs are met. Our data suggests that the closer people are to the refugee-generating countries, the lower their satisfaction with available services. In Iraq, some 50% of the refugee population say their needs are not met at all. Perceptions gradually improve in countries further away. In Lebanon, for example, the comparable figure is 30%. In Turkey, it is 24% in Gaziantep near the Syrian border and 28% further west in Istanbul. In Austria, only 7% of respondents say their priority needs are not met.

In Iraq, we see frustrations mounting over time. Refugees who arrived relatively recently are more satisfied with the services they receive than those who have been there longer. Some 27% of those who came between 2014 and 2017 consider their most important needs are “mostly” or “completely” satisfied. In contrast, none of those who entered the country between 2007 and 2012 feel their main needs are being met.

In Lebanon, satisfaction is low across the board, independent of date of arrival. Data for refugees in Gaziantep, Turkey shows a similar pattern to Iraq, with people’s sense of improvement in their lives falling off with time. In Izmir and Istanbul, scores on this issue are universally low, with no distinction related to length of stay in the country.

Cash transfers and onward movement

Where refugees live in urban centers rather than camps, direct cash transfers have become an increasingly popular form of humanitarian assistance. The EU-funded Emergency Social Safety Net, which was endowed with €348 million in 2017, provides some €30 a month to every eligible family member, plus top-ups based on family size. In a survey of people receiving cash support that we conducted in Turkey last November, a minority of respondents (41%) said they planned to go to another country in the next three months. When this aggregate figure is broken down by country of origin, we see that 59% of Afghans would like to go elsewhere compared to 39% of Iraqis and 29% of Syrians. Irrespective of origin, cash transfers appear to have a negligible impact on people’s plans to stay or go.

As people move further from the eye of the humanitarian storm, their sense of what’s missing changes. In northern Iraq, refugees say they lack basic things like food, medicine, and healthcare. Those in Lebanon point to food and water shortages, high rents, and limited access to healthcare. Further west, people’s concerns are more prospect-orientated. In Turkey, for example, refugees cite problems with employment, accommodation, and financial support, as well as healthcare and education. In Austria, refugees are focused on self-reliance and integration through continuing education, language courses, and employment.

Earning a living key to empowerment

Relevance and adequacy of services is one thing. Empowerment is another. In Iraq and Lebanon, refugees and internally displaced people say the support they receive is inadequate for them to live without aid in the future. They want to earn a living but getting access to employment is hard, especially for women. In Turkey, people are more positive about finding work but nonetheless they say lack of job opportunities is one of the top three reasons for wanting to leave the country. The other two are related: insufficient income and poor housing.

People’s sense of safety and welcome by host communities can also act as push and retention factors. In all four countries surveyed, people say they feel quite safe. They also consider themselves relatively welcome, although scores on welcome are lower than on safety. On both questions, there is a higher level of ambivalence in Lebanon than the other three countries; a finding that jibes with the uncertainties and limited opportunities there.

We usually include a question on whether people have sufficient information to take informed decisions about moving to another country. More than two-thirds of respondents in Turkey, which hosts some three million registered refugees, say they have “no” or “not very much” information to help them make up their minds about onward movement. Most respondents in Lebanon, which includes a Palestinian cohort that has been in the country for decades, consider themselves well-informed. Perceptions are mixed among refugees in northern Iraq and in Austria

Our 2017 survey findings confirm that refugees and other people on the move know relatively little about what may await them in the countries they’d like to go to. They rely mainly on hearsay from other people in the same predicament and the rumours that swirl around uprooted communities. People’s knowledge about asylum laws is as sketchy as their understanding of economic opportunities.

Setting priorities based on feedback

What, then, are the key takeaways for humanitarian policy makers and aid agencies? For a start, more attention should go to meeting the needs of the affected populations in Iraq and Lebanon before things sour further. Greater emphasis on empowerment through access to the job market also comes through as a priority. Another insight is that people’s sense of welcome lags their sense of safety. It would make sense to do more to bring these two sentiments into balance if people are to feel effectively protected. Finally, filling the information vacuum is essential. More communication from official sources, which the surveys suggest are trusted by people on the move, would be a welcome alternative to the rumour mill. The German government’s new website on asylum and refugee protection is an example of what’s needed.

There’s no quick fix to the travails of the thousands of people uprooted by conflict and misfortune whose views we have been tracking this past year. But unless they are addressed, there is a danger that the frustrations will grow in 2018, with unforeseen consequences. It would be good to keep a finger on the pulse so as not to find ourselves playing catch-up on events that have overtaken us.

This post is based on a presentation prepared for a conference organised by the Raoul Wallenberg Foundation on the factors affecting refugee and migrant movements from the Middle East to Europe that was held in Istanbul in December 2017.

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