Photograph of a Syrian refugee woman and her children
‘A crisis of politics, not economics’. A Syrian refugee woman with her children. Photo ©

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September 2017

Isabelle Younane reflects on whether a more pragmatic approach to the migration crisis, combining public and private sector investment, could create employment, education, and entrepreneurial opportunity for potential migrants in host communities – rather than leaving millions trapped in refugee camps and reliant on aid. 

“You have to get the basics right that stabilize the bottom of the pyramid so people are not forced to either ‘flee or fight’. You have to build solutions at the source” 

- Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and author

Forging anchors not walls

Despite global humanitarian assistance amounting to US$27.3 billion in 2016 – with over half the funds allocated to Syria, Yemen, Iraq, South Sudan and Ethiopia – the migration crisis is showing no sign of abating. Over 65 million people are displaced globally, and a rising number of forced migrants are resorting to perilous journeys across the Mediterranean. 1,073 people were reported dead or missing on the passage between Libya and Italy in the first few months of 2017 . Public services in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are straining under the weight of unprecedented refugee numbers. 

Aggravating this problem is the fact that, as observed by Professor Alexander Betts and Sir Paul Collier in their latest book, Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System, the vast majority of those seeking refuge abroad do not fit into the legal definition of “refugee” enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Rather than fleeing individual persecution on the basis of ethnicity, nationality, political opinion, or membership of a certain social group, many forced migrants are fleeing internal conflict and chronic fragility. 

Over 65 million people are displaced globally, and a rising number of forced migrants are resorting to perilous journeys across the Mediterranean

These issues were raised at an expert seminar on the migration crisis, hosted by the British Council, with delegates from UK Government, humanitarian agencies, academia, and think-tanks. The participants observed that this mismatch between the legal framework and today’s reality has resulted in many people falling through the cracks, missing out on vital protections and assistance. 

 Meanwhile, the developing world hosts approximately 89%of refugees , heaping an untenable burden onto already fragile economies and disrupting social and cultural cohesion. Participants recognised that limited prospects for higher education and employment within these countries are forcing asylum-seekers to either descend into poverty, or to flee further from home – often via criminal human smuggling networks – to seek a better life in countries like the UK. The response by many Western governments has been to bolster their borders – to “build walls” - and boost foreign aid. This is exemplified by the closure of the Balkan migration route in March 2016, followed closely by the EU-Turkey deal, which shut off the route to Europe from Turkey and left the latter with an unparalleled 2.9 million refugees. 

The situation is not confined to the Middle East and North Africa. Surging birth rates in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) have exceeded the availability of jobs and educational opportunities, with SSA’s regional population having swelled from 186 million to 856 million people between 1950 and 2010. Dubbed ‘economic migrants’ by the press, young people from SSA countries increasingly seek a better quality of life – and sometimes survival – in Europe. Meanwhile, the phenomena of ‘climate refugees’ is on the rise – with changes in weather patterns, desertification, and natural disasters causing strains on agricultural livelihoods and food and water security. This forced over one million Africans from their homes in 2015, with a potential for even greater numbers in the future. Violence and fragility is also affecting the SSA region, with Uganda hosting nearly 1.25 million, mostly South Sudanese, refugees.

A crisis of politics as well as economics

If Western governments want to curb the flow of migration, they must give people an incentive to stay. This is the crux of the argument made by Professor Betts in his new book. The current refugee system means that asylum-seekers are essentially faced with three choices: stay in a camp indefinitely; settle in a neighbouring country and risk the descent into poverty; or make the life-threatening journey to Europe. We need to expand this choice set, says Betts, and anchor people in opportunity. We need to restore the autonomy of forced migrants so that they can contribute economically to their host community, and gain the skills necessary to help rebuild their home country after conflict has ended. Confinement to refugee camps is not only an affront to human dignity, says Betts – it is a waste of human resources. 

If Western governments want to curb the flow of migration, they must give people an incentive to stay

Some progress is being made. Betts points to the ‘Jordan Compact’, which is funded by the World Bank and international partners including the UK. Multinational corporations, including IKEA and Walmart, now have a presence in 18 special economic zones throughout Jordan, employing both Jordanians and Syrians, and unlocking preferential access to the EU market. As a result of the Compact, 51,000 Syrians now have work permits in Jordan. 

Betts identifies the Jordanian model as second-best to the Ugandan model, where its 1.25 million refugees have been given the legal right to obtain a plot of land, start businesses, and access healthcare and education. But some participants observed that scaling up Jordan’s model still faces the major challenge of incentivising multinational corporations to invest, and encouraging a new type of longer-term overseas development investment from the international community.

Guests considered that private-public sector partnership needs to be coupled with building the capacity of host countries such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon to provide higher education and skills-training for forced migrants. According to recent British Council research, 8% of the 4.5 million Syrian refugees living in these three countries are of university-going age, and many of them feel that the education provided for refugees is poor. These findings pose a unique challenge for higher education providers and policymakers in terms of thinking creatively about how to provide decent higher education for thousands of refugees.

Despite noting the merits of Betts’ approach, several participants with experience of working within refugee-hosting communities argued that this is a crisis of politics, not just economics. Tensions are rising in countries such as Uganda, with local landowners resisting the relocation of refugees. In countries like these – which suffer from food shortages, drought and high unemployment – providing vast numbers of refugees with jobs and education is likely to have a negative impact on social cohesion, and is therefore unlikely to win political support. Similarly in Lebanon, where its one million Syrian refugees are creating further strain on already low employment levels and squeezed public services, the sheer number of newcomers demands that some are resettled elsewhere.

On participant considered that while the Jordan Compact is a positive step, there are many professions in the country which are closed to forced migrants. Rather than adopting a ‘beggars-can’t-be-choosers’ approach, governments must strive to provide access to “decent” work which provides a fair income, security and social protection. However, Africa continues to suffer from the failure of micro business to scale up and of state industries to be competitive. The Gulf also has not seen job creation at a rate that delivers the necessary levels of employability to sustain social cohesion and provide a post-oil economic base. 

Pragmatism needs to meet empathy, argues Betts, when it comes to solving the refugee crisis. The international response must be more nuanced than delivering billions of dollars in emergency relief on one side, and resettling millions of refugees on the other. While the Jordan Compact and the Ugandan model are two locally-specific models that cannot necessarily be replicated in all refugee-hosting countries, they provide valuable lessons in terms recognising the long-term needs of forced migrants, and capitalising on their economic potential. 

These models also demonstrate the benefits of rooting people in opportunity, rather than blocking avenues for onward migration – a model that could be scaled up in parts of Africa, where high unemployment, coupled with a young demographic, is seeing young people flee for better opportunities in the West. Finally, by investing resources in entrepreneurship – supporting small businesses to scale up and become competitive – the international community has much to gain, not only in terms of curbing the arrival of newcomers, but also in helping to cultivate new trading partners. 

Isabelle Younane, British Council Policy and External Relations Officer

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