USCRI: U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants


In many emergencies, initial refugee assistance comes not from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the World Food Programme (WFP) but from local populations and/or authorities. Local hosts often lead the way in demonstrating practical alternatives to warehousing. With freedom of movement, refugees can negotiate with local landowners, cultivate, trade, and otherwise pursue livelihoods contributing to the local economy’s growth.

Here is an example of communities that did not warehouse refugees but allowed them to earn livelihoods until they became unofficially integrated:

Spontaneous settlement (Guinea)

Between 1989 and 1994, about 500,000 Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees settled spontaneously in border villages and towns in the Forest Region of Guinea, where many had relatives. The Government did not create refugee camps but allowed local villages and chiefs to welcome and support the refugees. UNHCR accepted this policy and foreign donors directed funding to reinforce existing facilities, such as health centers, dwellings, and schools, and offer free access to local basic services to refugees. In remote areas with high concentrations of refugees UNHCR funded new schools and clinics.

The Government did not restrict refugees’ movements. The refugees acquired land directly from local institutions and introduced previously unknown rice production techniques in lower swamp areas.  Their work and the aid they attracted created an economic boom in the Forest Region. The Guinean healthcare system in the area became the best in the country, benefiting both locals and refugees.

After 1995, however, the Government put newly arriving Sierra Leonean refugees in border-area camps which Sierra-Leonean rebels attacked between 1999 and 2001.  The Guinean authorities closed the border and banned travel in the area.  For several months, refugees were cut off from relief supplies and could barely support themselves.  Self-settlement became untenable and the Government began increasing rural encampment instead.  Today, most refugees must live in camps receive UNHCR assistance.  Local authorities do not always recognize their rights to work and freedom of movement and harass those traveling in the country or working in urban settlements.

See Wim Van Damme, “How Liberian and Sierra Leonean Refugees Settled in the Forest Region of Guinea 1990-96,” Journal of Refugee Studies, 1999, 12(1), pp. 36-53.


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