As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, appeals for more global solidarity and asks the international community to "take 10 percent of all the Syrian refugees ... more than 400,000 people," Oxford refugee scholar Alexander Betts and Oxford economics professor Paul Collier think of better ways to help refugees and fix this failing refugee system. They believe more effort should be directed towards addressing the refugee crisis closer to its main source, i.e. in the Middle East. Betts and Collier propose the creation of "economic zones" in the region that would enhance hosting countries' economies, while providing jobs to Syrian refugees. The newly acquired skills developed through vocational training could then be reinvested in the rebuilding process of post-war Syria.
Betts explained how this idea came to life in an insightful talk. He first described how Syrian refugees today are facing three basic options:
The first is "encampment." "Camps are in bleak, arid locations, often in the desert" in which economic activity is restricted and the quality of education is poor. That's probably why, he adds, only 9 percent of Syrian refugees choose to stay in camps and lead this "miserable existence."
The second option is "urban destitution." Refugees go to urban areas where they usually do not have the right to work and have limited access to assistance. When basic savings are used up, refugees face poverty.
The third alternative is the one more and more Syrians are resorting to, which is embarking on dangerous journeys to another country, mainly in Europe.
Betts believes we should give refugees other options and opportunities. In his own words: "Yes, clothes, blankets, shelter, food are all important in the emergency phase, but we need to also look beyond that...Rather than seeing refugees as inevitably dependent upon humanitarian assistance, we need to provide them with opportunities for human flourishing."
How do we do that?
One approach could be by developing "economic zones" that would provide jobs for refugees while boosting the economies of hosting countries. Betts recounts how he and Collier brainstormed this idea on a trip to Jordan in April 2015, trying to envisage ways to bring jobs to Syrian refugees residing there while supporting Jordan's national development strategy. They came up with a "zonal development model" that could integrate the employment of refugees alongside the employment of Jordanians.
The scholars elaborated on their proposal in an article titled "Help Refugees Help Themselves" in the journal Foreign Affairs. King Abdullah of Jordan picked up on the idea, which was announced at the London Syria Conference this February. A pilot study is about to start this summer.
Betts and Collier write that the international policy towards the Syrian refugee crisis is out-of-date and inefficient: "this boats-and-camps approach misses the core of the problem." It currently revolves around writing checks for humanitarian relief to support refugees in camps, debating on a fair distribution of new arrivals across the European Union and elsewhere, and stopping perilous journeys across the Mediterranean. It should, instead, be geared towards providing refugees with economic opportunities in the region.
After all, as the authors remind us, most Syrian refugees are still in the Middle East. The governments of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey that host most of the 4.8 million Syrian refugees there cannot effectively integrate them because of their own shaky economic, ethnic, and sectarian equilibriums. Betts and Collier warn:
To properly care for the displaced, policymakers must first understand the concerns of the states that host them. An effective refugee policy should improve the lives of the refugees in the short term and the prospects of the region in the long term, and it should also serve the economic and security interests of the host states.
With this in mind, they turn to Jordan to illustrate their new approach to this crisis and show how a different refugee policy could integrate Syrians into specially created economic zones that offer Syrian refugees work and autonomy while promoting Jordan's industrial development. This approach could be applied to other hosting countries as well.
In the case of Jordan, the authors explain, the country long hoped to make the transition to a manufacturing economy. To date, it cannot compete with low-income countries for cheap labor or with advanced economies on technology and innovation. The one million Syrian refugees it hosts, instead of destabilizing the country as Jordanian leaders fear, could offer Jordan the opportunity to make this transition.
Here's how this can be played out. Refugee camps could be reinvented as industrial incubator zones, where the international community would invest financially and through trade concessions to boost two types of businesses in these areas: international firms that employ Syrian refugees and Jordanians alike, and Syrian firms that can no longer operate in Syria. The latter will be able to relocate in Syria come peace or keep their operations in Jordan.
Such an approach, while aiding Syrian refugees gain employment and autonomy, would "help Jordan achieve a central national goal." It will also empower Syrians when they return home to rebuild their country.
The authors elaborate further in their article on their "zonal development model" and views on how to reform this failing global refugee policy.
But the important point to be made here is that attention – more creative and efficient attention – needs to be given to Syrians refugees inside their current Middle Eastern hosting countries. As Paul Collier noted elsewhere:
Look, the refugees overwhelmingly are and are going to continue to be in countries that border the areas of the conflicts, so the fate of refugees does not really depend on whether a few thousand more come to the rich societies. What matters is what happens to the millions.
Perhaps it is time for the international community – especially the United States, as it remains the single-largest donor to the Syrian crisis ($5.1 billion to date) while pushing to resettle more and more Syrian refugees – to listen to those experts and start investing in a more productive way in the region. By following a development-based policy, the West can give millions of Syrian refugees autonomy and opportunity and render them better equipped to rebuild a postwar Syria.
Paul Collier is clear:
Migration to the West is a peripheral aspect of what to do when there's a conflict. The really important thing is to help to rebuild the society after conflict, whilst treating the vast number of refugees well during the conflict." [Emphasis added.]
Wars do not go on forever. When the time comes to rebuild Syria, the international community might be forced to realize that the millions of people it supposedly helped are left needing to rebuild themselves before participating in any of their country's postwar projects. It might also find little comfort in the fact that, of the thousands it helped resettle, many are probably still struggling in foreign lands.
But let us not kid ourselves. Guilty consciences (if any) can easily be overridden by further donations.
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