A life story approach to refugee management

By | August 24, 2022

This year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that for the first time in the world the number of forcibly displaced people exceeded 100 million. This means that one in every 78 people has been forced to leave their homes. The number of internally and externally displaced people due to weather-related disasters, famine and unemployment is also increasing. Institute of Economics and Peace (IEP) estimates that there could be 1.2 billion climate refugees by 2050.

A proactive approach is needed to help solve this perennial problem and improve the lives of refugees. Or, inside Speeches of the mayor of WarsawPoland, “It’s time we stopped improvising and instead created a refugee response strategy and appropriate systems..”

In order to create effective and compassionate systems for refugees, governments and their partners need to consider the approach to livelihoods. A life-event approach to digital service delivery involves aggregating a number of services to match a specific event, such as a birth, marriage, or death. Instead of people having to go to different agencies to access different services, governments can pool information and resources to provide these services more consistently.

Advanced approaches include coordinating services and sharing information with agencies as well as the private sector and civil society organizations.

Some governments, including the US federal government, have adopted a life-event approach to disaster response, from floods to wildfires. These unexpected and unplanned life events require citizens and residents to access services from multiple agencies and require an empathetic and personalized approach.

The same can be applied to refugee arrivals. When refugees arrive in a new country, they must register for residency and a digital identity through the government or an NGO and have immediate access to food, cash programs and shelter. These short-term needs are then transformed into long-term needs, including access to health services, education and the labor market.

A life event approach and integration of these services often helps to manage bureaucratic systems and services more easily. This is especially important for vulnerable populations in times of need and uncertainty. It also improves efficiency, saves time and reduces costs for government agencies.

In New Zealand, for example, the government created SmartStart, an interagency online service to help parents navigate government services around the birth of their baby. In its first year, the service attracted less than 6,000 visitors to the Ministry of Social Development and was well received by parents, midwives and NGOs.

However, this should not be seen as a substitute for face-to-face support when needed. Certain groups of refugees, such as unaccompanied minors or people with cognitive or physical disabilities, may require additional specialized and practical support from governments and non-governmental organizations.

A graphic depicting the stages of refugee crisis management. Key steps taken by refugees in managing services and resources

Source: IDC 2022

The Government of Portugal is at the forefront of providing joint services for refugees. The Border and Immigration Service has established a Temporary Protection regime for Ukrainian refugees. When Ukrainian refugees register through an online portal or in person, they receive identification numbers from key agencies, such as a tax identification number, social security identification number, and national health service user number, to access basic services.

Providing comprehensive services organized around planned or unexpected events throughout life comes with its own challenges. It requires governments to establish sound governance mechanisms for inter-agency collaboration, secure and reliable data sharing, and shared budgets to deliver integrated services.

This is no small feat and requires a strategic approach and strong leadership, but there are examples of governments successfully overcoming these obstacles.
National and local authorities and international institutions seeking to improve the lives and livelihoods of refugees should adopt this approach.

Using technology for humanitarian purposes—HumTech—requires the right political motivation and leadership to shift refugee management from an ad hoc response to a crisis to a more systemic response to multi-year challenges.

For more information on technology and its impact on refugees:

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