Refugee Camp Economies


Despite the presence of long-term and significantly sized populations, the existence of market economies within and immediately surrounding refugee camps are very small, with limited products and capital to sustain them. These limited market economies are typically a consequence of the policies established by host governments that are designed to restrict a refugee’s right to earn a wage, their freedom of mobility, and to isolate these populations to remote regions where there is little to no market economy already established. Refugee camps economies are often built by local entrepreneurs taking advantage of the potential market, or the few refugees that have the economic capital and resources to begin a small business. Participating in camp economies, whether it be through the consumption of a product of their choice or by establishing a business, empowers refugees to develop their independence from the refugee system. For refugees to gain more agency in the determination of their own lives, policies need to be established to facilitate and incentivize economic participation. These policies are the only solution for the ultimate economic independence of refugees in lieu of one of the UNHCR’s three durable solutions.

Although there are many people in living in refugee camps with enough entrepreneurial skills and economic capital to begin a small business, the vast majority of refugees live in a complete or primary dependence on welfare services provided to them as a result of the restrictive policies placed on their lives. These restrictions on their daily lives severely limit an individual’s ability to provide for their family outside of humanitarian assistance. According to Eric Werker (2007: 461), if we were to combine the populations of the approximate 300 camps organized by the UNHCR worldwide (3.9 million people in 2004), they would be able to produce an economy similar Zambia or Senegal and have a GDP of US$4 to 6 billion (about US$5 to 8 billion in 2017); while they have the potential to build and contribute to a market economy significantly, “these populations live in the most extreme example of the welfare state.” Werker (2007: 476) argues that the creation of policies that increase the number of freedoms entitled to refugees, reduce the risks of doing business, incentivize the size and ability of the market should have a significant positive impact on refugee camp economies, and as a result, the lives of the refugees themselves.


Refugee camp markets can often empower refugees to create agency in their own lives, by not only building and contributing to an economy in a stark environment but also by making active consumer decisions. Rahul Chandrashekhar Oka (2014:24) argues that “everyday acts of consumption enable refugees to feel a sense of normalcy and to cope with sadness with some dignity while they wait in lines for relief rations, security, repatriation, or resettlement.” While studying the black-market in Kakuma refugee camp, Oka estimated that 80-90% of camp inhabitants sold part or most of their rations provided to them. In many cases, the food that given to these refugees were culturally inappropriate, not a part of their traditional diet, perceived as unpalatable and ultimately impractical for their knowledge and resources available. For example, a family might trade their beans and maize for sorghum and wheat. In times of crisis or depression, Oka observed a significant increase in consumption in items viewed as luxuries such as sugar, soft drinks, coffee, and meals with meat. While not initially intended for the purpose, food rations became a source of currency that most camp inhabitants lacked otherwise and enabled them to make active decisions in their lives. In the case of Oka’s study, the black-market economy and the exchange of rations promoted a slight sense of independence and agency in a welfare system that fosters dependency.


One of the most significant fears of many countries hosting refugees is that these populations would flood the job market and burden what little resources these developing nations have. The refugee is perceived as the ultimate dependency, and as modern conflicts are becoming increasingly complicated, their stay is rarely recognized by the host nation as “temporary.” These are the fears that prevent host nations from integrating refugees into their economy and society. In Betts and Collier’s work “Help Refugees Help Themselves” (2015), the authors argue that by helping refugees gain employment and agency, host nations will begin to achieve what should be national goals. By incorporating people who are willing and able to work into the job market, by utilizing their knowledge and skills, they help generate jobs. By incorporating more people into the market economy rather than alienating an entire sector of their population, host nations have the potential to increase their GDP.

As researchers and policies makers, we are responsible for understanding the depth of disenfranchisement and to develop solutions that promote agency. Refugee welfare systems, although logical in the short-term, deny protracted refugees the ability to contribute to their community economically or to take any independent action to improve their lives. Refugee communities are like any civil society and have a virtually untapped reservoir of knowledge, skills, and expertise. Any system of governance (whether that be the UNCHR or a national government) has the responsibility to provide organization, education, healthcare, and the social and economic tools/resources needed for individuals to help themselves. Our refugee policy decisions should aim to develop communities that are built on a diverse and rich economic market to foster independence and not alienate victims of global tragedies from the rest of the world. It is only by developing the potential of refugees’ livelihoods and economic market contributions will we ever solve protracted situations.



Betts, Alexander and Paul Collier. 2015 Help Refugees Help Themselves: Let Displaced Syrians Join the Labor Market. Foreign Affairs 94: 84-92.

Oka, Rahul Chandrashekhar. 2014. Coping with the Refugee Wait: The Role of Consumption, Normalcy, and Dignity in Refugee Lives in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya. American Anthropologist 116(1): 23-37.

Werker, Eric. 2007. Refugee Camp Economies. Journal of Refugee Studies 20(3): 461-480.

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