Some refugees stay in temporary status indefinitely – how they still manage to create homes and communities

More than 6.5 million Ukrainian war refugees are now scattered across Europe and North America, most with temporary emergency residency allowing them to stay in host countries for one to three years.

But roughly half a year into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the war looks unlikely to end soon. Ukrainians may be unable to return to their home country for years to come.

They are not alone in their plight.

Refugees from around the world are living with displacement longer than they did three decades ago. Host countries in North America and Europe that traditionally granted refugees permanent resettlement are increasingly offering temporary status only. At the same time, the displaced population is rising. In 2021, the United Nations estimated more than 89 million people worldwide were forced to flee their homes, up from 43 million in 2012.

Today, the average refugee remains in a state of temporary residence for 10 to 26 years, up from about nine years in 1993.

Our academic research focuses on what refugees and other displaced people do to make homes for themselves even as their lives remain in flux – sometimes for decades on end.

Understanding these practices could help create more pragmatic refugee policies. As migration becomes increasingly more common and more necessary, laws that stand in the way of the universal human need to make a home also prevent societies from learning how to cope with refugee crises.

Practices of survival and sustenance

Between 1990 and 2018 we conducted wide-ranging research with long-term refugees and other displaced people in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America. Our work shows that displaced people find creative ways to settle into life despite refugee policies that keep them in limbo.

From Sudanese refugees living in Egypt to Georgians and Sri Lankans displaced within their own countries, we found that most started making homes quickly. They sent their children to school, cooked meals and scrounged furniture.

These daily practices are essential for “holding things together,” our research participants told us, with many of them explaining that they had to keep going because of their children.

Most of the refugees also kept their living space clean, whether it was a room in an abandoned hotel, a tent or a shelter. They have shown us that maintaining and modifying one’s living space is essential for a feeling of autonomy, dignity and respect.

These observations are supported by other research on displaced people. In New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina survivors who were residing in FEMA trailers that they were not allowed to personalize showed poor health outcomes and depression after a few years in these conditions.

Those who aren’t refugees can likely relate to these feelings. People try to make home even when they do not feel at home, in ways many people would recognize.