Restrictions on Humanitarian Aid to Refugees

Published on 3 February 2014

This rapid review looks at the available literature examining the impacts of policies that restrict aid to refugees in official camps and the response of the humanitarian community to such policies.

The evidence base for this question is extremely weak. Very little of the literature uncovered during this rapid review engages directly or in depth with the question of the impact of such aid restrictions. Even fewer analyse how the humanitarian community has responded to these restrictions. A related debate is ongoing around aid provisions to urban refugees and the suitability of camps as a response to supporting refugees, which a number of expert commentators suggest could offer some insights.

However, this was beyond the scope of this rapid review. An overview of the literature uncovered during the review also suggests there is much less analysis of the impact of aid restrictions on refugees who self-settle in rural areas as opposed to urban areas.

Case studies of Bangladesh, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania are used to examine the impact of restrictive aid policies.

  • Bangladesh: The government has restricted aid to registered refugees living in official camps. As a result hundreds of thousands of unregistered refugees face poor conditions of nutrition, health, shelter, protection and livelihoods. Women tend to be worse off. A limited amount of ‘ under the radar ’ service delivery by NGOs occurs but the humanitarian community’s attempts to implement a more substantial response are blocked by the government.
  • Uganda: Aid is restricted to refugees in official settlements. Many refugees prefer self-settlement because of the freedom it offers. Problems with local hosts can arise because of the additional demands refugees often place on local services. The humanitarian response has been limited by lack of capacity and obedience to government policy.
  • Kenya: Refugees in Nairobi have achieved a level of self-sufficiency despite not being entitled to aid. The poorest struggle to access basic services. Humanitarian organisations are engaged in advocacy aimed at ensuring refugee rights.
  • Tanzania: Unequal service provision compared to some refugees in camps has caused tensions with the local community.

The limited literature and expert contributors identify the following lessons:

  • Refugees will end up outside camps even when not provided with aid, either by choice or circumstance.
  • Lack of assistance often leads to refugees in host communities facing problems accessing services, livelihoods and protection.
  • A camp only aid policy can cause tensions with the local community due to perceptions of unfairness or worries over the strain placed on local services by unregistered refugees.
  • Restricting aid can be inefficient as it does not provide substantial benefits to refugees or host communities.
  • Aid agencies have done little to counter these restrictions.


Brigitte Rohwerder

Research Officer

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Rohwerder, B.


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