Unseen and overwhelmed: Host communities struggle as displacement surges

May 20, 2020
Written by Kieran McConville

When massive numbers of people are displaced by violence or disaster, they have to go somewhere. Often that destination is already home to an existing community — and as one group of people become refugees or IDPs, the other become the hosts. That can cause problems, for both.

Unseen and overwhelmed

Think about this. Before the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011, the population of Lebanon was around 5 million people. Today there are about 1 million extra people — refugees from Syria — living in what is one of the smallest countries in the world. The pressure on services and infrastructure that this huge influx of people has caused is enormous. And it has understandably resulted in tensions.

Similarly, about 700,000 refugees from Myanmar poured into a small sliver of land in southern Bangladesh over the course of a few short weeks in late 2017, adding to the 200,000 Rohingya who had already fled there in previous years. The local population — mostly poor farmers — were literally overwhelmed.

Most recent figures show that there are nearly 80 million people displaced worldwide.

Paddy field Cox's Bazar

Entering one of the camps at Cox’s Bazar, which is surrounded by locally owned rice paddies.

“It’s very important that we bear in mind the needs of host communities when we’re responding to a crisis,” according to Concern’s Kirk Prichard. “They are so easily left behind in the rush to provide emergency services for displaced people.”

“Land and crops can be damaged or destroyed, and local water, sanitation, and road infrastructure can become overloaded. Often, the host country is itself economically challenged and unable to provide the extra resources needed to deal with the new arrivals.”

Of course, depending on the context, there can also be benefits to local communities. Small businesses and markets can thrive on the increased custom, and the arrival of aid organizations provides a new source of income and employment. But generally speaking the impacts have been largely negative.

A latrine in a refugee camp in Gambella Ethiopia

A large influx of people can put pressure on local infrastructure and the environment. Pictured is a latrine in Pugnido Refugee Camp in Gambella, Ethiopia. Photo: Kieran McConville

Concern has committed to providing increased services and opportunities for communities affected by inward displacement. “Firstly, it’s the right thing to do,” according to Kirk Prichard, “because these people generally have little or no say in this massive change to their environment and circumstances. But it’s also important to avoid a buildup of tensions between the two groups, which can make it much more difficult for our teams to do their jobs effectively.”

Working for everyone

The large water and shelter projects carried out by Concern in Northern Lebanon were primarily designed to facilitate poor Syrian refugee families living in informal settlements there, but also cater for local families. Livelihood and agriculture projects include both Syrians and Lebanese, and during the recent COVID-19 lockdown Concern’s protection services for those affected by gender-based violence were available to both communities.

A community water tower.

A water tower in Akkar, Lebanon, built by Concern to serve both refugee and host communities. Photo: Kieran McConville

The refugee population in the lower part of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh is double that of the local community. Public services in the area were already under-resourced, before the arrival of the refugees.

Concern’s Interim Country Director in Bangladesh, Hasina Rahman, says that her teams have been committed to serving both populations since the beginning of the crisis. “Over the past couple of years Concern has been engaging with local people on new livelihoods opportunities, cash-for-work activities, child nutrition, and disaster risk reduction. Much of the cadre of volunteers that works within the camps is sourced locally, and our next major project will see 40% of funds allocated to the needs of the local community.”

Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has reached the camps of Cox’s Bazar, Concern’s new mobile testing service is available to both refugees and local residents.

Honey and fish

Beekeepers in Ethiopia

Pictured are Ojulu Ochangi and Aixili Omod  at their community bee hives in Gambella. Photo: Kieran McConville

Gambella, in the west of Ethiopia, is traditionally home to the Anuak tribe. They hunt, fish, and practice subsistence farming in this remote and disadvantaged region on the border with South Sudan. Across that border, at Pugnido, refugees from various conflicts have been coming for nearly 30 years — to the point where they now outnumber the Anuak. Already marginalized, the locals have struggled to accommodate their new neighbors.

Concern’s Livelihoods team has been encouraging refugees to become more self-sufficient and provide better nutrition for their children through backyard vegetable gardening and rearing small ruminants such as goats. In parallel, the team has been working with local people to help them improve their own circumstances.

“We have distributed improved seeds for maize and other crops for the farming that they do,” according to Concern’s Mengistu Arba. “But we are also helping people here to take a more professional approach to some of their other traditional activities.”

For example, some local communities have been working with bees for years to produce honey, but their output has been relatively low. The Concern team has worked with them to provide training, modern hives, and protective equipment.

Fishing with nets and a boat in Ethiopia

Nets and boats were distributed as part of the program in Gambella. Photo: Kieran McConville

People have fished the surrounding rivers for centuries, but it has been mostly for food and local markets. Mengistu says “We realized that with a new road being built from the town of Gambella to Pugnido, there were opportunities for expansion.” After research and consultation, a co-op was established and Concern has contributed new boats, nets, a store, and refrigeration which will allow the members to catch more and reach new markets.

With more displaced people in the world than ever before, the issue of host communities and their needs is now getting more attention. It’s an added complexity for those responding to displacement crises, but according to Concern’s Kirk Prichard, it’s an issue that deserves some long overdue attention. “There are hundreds of thousands of people across the world who have found themselves under substantial economic and social pressure because of events beyond their control. As humanitarians, we have a duty of care to all.”

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Working with a host community in Ethiopia