Viewpoint: Treat refugees as a development issue

By Prof Alexander Betts
Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford University

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Uganda has given refugees the right to work and a significant degree of freedom of movement

Europe is facing a mass influx of refugees from outside the region for the first time in its history, as people flee persecution and conflict in countries such as Syria and Iraq. And its politicians are struggling to find a coherent response.

At the European level, the EU's supposed common asylum and immigration policy has been stretched to breaking point. While politicians and the media have inappropriately characterised this as a "migrant crisis", the overwhelming majority of people are coming from refugee-producing countries.

Europe has a proud history of protecting refugees - it created the modern refugee regime after the Holocaust. This tradition is under threat.

Europe needs to provide asylum, but it also needs to take a global perspective.

Only a tiny proportion of the world's 20 million refugees come to Europe: 95% are in the countries that neighbour conflict and crisis, mainly in developing regions. About 3.5 million Syrians are in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. More than 500,000 Somalis are in Kenya. More than two million Afghans are in Pakistan and Iran.

It is ultimately in these regions that a significant part of the solution must be found.

Conventional responses focus on providing humanitarian assistance. But this is not enough.

'Win-win' opportunities

Host countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, and Thailand are overwhelmed and increasingly closing borders. Refugees are often left dependent, "warehoused" in camps and without the right to work for many years. Given this situation, many people want to move onwards.

The real challenge is not how we stop people coming to Europe; it is how we create innovative and sustainable global models of refugee assistance.

One approach is to reconceive refugees as a development issue rather than simply a humanitarian issue. Refugees have skills, talents and aspirations. At their best, development-based approaches to refugees have the potential to provide "win-win" opportunities for refugees, host countries, and donors, until refugees are able to return home.

In our recent research in Uganda, we have shown how refugees can contribute economically to host states. Unlike many other countries in the region, it has adopted a so-called "self-reliance strategy", allowing refugees the right to work and a significant degree of freedom of movement. In urban areas and settlements, refugees engage in a diverse range of entrepreneurial activities.

In Kampala, for instance, 21% of refugees run businesses that employ other people. Far from being dependent on aid, 96% of refugee households have some independent income source. This shows that given the right policies, refugees can and will help themselves and contribute to host societies.

Historically, there are examples of how Europe has supported development-based approaches to refugee assistance. One neglected example comes from Central America where, at the end of the Cold War, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced.

The international community adopted an initiative known as CIREFCA, which between 1987 and 1995 created opportunities for refugee self-reliance across the region. The premise was that through targeted development assistance, opportunities could be created for both host communities and displaced populations.

Image source, Mercy Corps
Image caption,
Could some of the 83,000 refugees at Jordan's UN-run Zaatari camp find work in the nearby King Hussain Development Area?

Health, education, and infrastructure projects were funded mainly by the then European Community across the entire region. In total, about $500m (£321m) was spent on 72 development projects across seven countries.

Sustainable support

Mexico, with a significant number of Guatemalan refugees, recognised that it had areas of under-developed land. With European money for agricultural projects, it agreed to provide self-reliance opportunities and local integration for Guatemalan refugees. The outcome was that refugees were able to contribute to the agricultural development of the Yucatan Peninsula in ways that are now well-documented.

Today, similar untapped opportunities exist.

Just a 15-minute drive from the now famous Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, home to 83,000 refugees, is the King Hussain Development Area. It was intended to support Jordan's manufacturing base but currently lacks labour and inward investment.

If the Zaatari refugees had access to employment opportunities within such spaces, alongside host nationals, it might offer a way to support Jordan's national development strategy while incubating the post-conflict Syrian economy. Europe could contribute through development assistance, backing trade concessions, and inward investment.

Although not a substitute for sanctuary in Europe, the EU needs a comprehensive global refugee policy. The response must include better cooperation within the EU among the 28 states on sharing responsibility within Europe.

It has to include articulating to the public why we should take refugees ourselves - in terms of ethics, law, economic and cultural benefits, and the symbolic importance of reciprocity.

But it also requires a plan for how to sustainably support refugees in other parts of the world.

Prof Alexander Betts is the director of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, and the author of Survival Migration: Failed Governance and the Crisis of Displacement.

He spoke to the BBC World Service's The Inquiry programme, which is broadcast on the BBC World Service on Tuesdays from 12:05 GMT/13:05 BST. Listen online or download the podcast.