Refuge should be about simple tasks: First it entails a duty of rescue" ©Irish Defence Forces via Wikimedia Commons

How to fix the refugee crisis

Separate safe havens from the migration debate, and the practical answers become clear
April 11, 2017

More people are displaced around the world than at any time since the Second World War. Bashar al-Assad’s latest chemical atrocity in Syria provides one more reminder of why that is, and with climate change the numbers will grow. Two thirds relocate within their own countries, but many must cross a border to survive. Meanwhile, the willingness to offer refuge is collapsing. The rise of populist nationalism has made an open-door policy untenable. Humanitarian budgets are being cut, with Donald Trump threatening to slash UN spending. Major refugee hosting countries—from Kenya to Lebanon—have begun to close their borders.

Can we reconcile these competing trends? The European refugee crisis offered a test case for our policies and they failed. Thousands died. Pronouncing “Wir schaffen das”—we can do this—in 2015, Angela Merkel briefly opened Germany’s doors and, six months later, U-turned by effectively conspiring with Turkey and the EU to close the Balkan and Aegean Sea routes to Syrians.

Even more drowned in 2016 than 2015, and in 2017 the total is fast approaching 1,000 with 146 lost in a single boat from Libya in late March. In Greece last year, several refugees froze to death. Germany now faces the generational challenge of integrating hundreds of thousands of Syrians, 90 per cent of whom were unable to find jobs in their first year. Meanwhile, even though only 0.2 per cent of Syrian refugees were in the UK, thanks to shambolic policies, the EU “Leave” campaign could make great play with such slogans as “Breaking Point.” It did not need to be this way. Providing refuge should be a manageable task. There are 20m international refugees, a modest number in the context of a global population of over 7bn. Furthermore, the challenge is concentrated in a small number of countries; a quarter of all refugees are, for example, Palestinians.

The problem is that we have lost sight of what refuge is about. For Europe it signals fear. For Turkey and Kenya it signals cost. The issue has become bound up with toxic debates on migration and globalisation. Both progressive and reactionary voices conflate refuge with the right to migrate. The debate became about whether we should open Europe to large numbers of Muslim migrants. This, though, was a distortion.

To address this, we need to restore refuge to its rightful place and understand what it is for, and how we can fulfil its requirements. Refuge is not about migration. Refugees need access to a safe haven, where their lives are restored to normality as quickly as possible. There is no absolute legal or ethical right to migrate. Even for refugees, the right to migrate is contingent on the need to access a safe haven.

Most refugees do not want to migrate. They are part of the population that chose not to move until crisis struck. Movement to Europe became necessary for Syrians only after too little was done to ensure safe havens nearer home. Syrians began moving to neighbouring states in 2011, but it was from late 2014—after restrictions were introduced in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey—that significant numbers crossed the Aegean. The tragedy is that for every £1 of public money donor states spend on an asylum seeker who reaches Europe, we spend less than 1p on a refugee in a neighbouring country. It is no wonder that in Turkey, home to more refugees than any country in the world, less than 10 per cent of refugees receive any assistance.

Refuge should be about three simple tasks. First, it entails a duty of rescue. Immediate requirements are safety, food, clothing and shelter. But that is not enough. The default response is still to build camps, which offer life-saving basics, but are dehumanising; residents are barred from work, and get stuck there for decades. Kenya’s Dadaab camps opened in 1992 and still host 350,000 Somalis, who can’t lawfully work or leave.

Second, autonomy. This is mainly about jobs: enabling people to support themselves. The right to work matters for dignity—it can also enable refugees to contribute to their host states and acquire skills to rebuild their own post-conflict societies. Sadly, with few exceptions such as Uganda, the right to work is severely restricted, largely as host states fear the competition in labour supply.

Third, refuge should include a route out of limbo. People should not be refugees for too long. Ideally, they should go home. Three years of uncertainty may be reasonable; a decade is not. But routes out of limbo are poorly conceived. Rich countries offer a small number of resettlement places, to protect the most vulnerable or make themselves feel good; but they do so without adequate coordination. Resettlement would ideally enable those who are still stuck in limbo beyond a designated cut-off point to be settled in willing third countries. Labour migration, student visas, and family reunification can complement resettlement here.

Safe haven, however, can and should be chiefly focused on the developing regions of the world that host 90 per cent of the world’s refugees and on the 10 countries that host 60 per cent of all refugees.

The challenge is to provide incentives for the neighbouring countries to offer the right to work, and to encourage businesses to invest in bringing jobs to both refugees and hosts. During the 1990s, European money enabled Mexico to develop its Yucatán Peninsula through offering economic status to Guatemalan refugees; Uganda provides self-reliance to its refugees, who now number over a million, with documented economic benefits to both the refugees and their hosts. Pilots are under way in Jordan and Ethiopia to support refugee access to work while contributing to national development. Such approaches require economic support and political brokerage: skill sets that are under-valued by the big humanitarian agencies.

If we get our policies right, onward movement becomes a last resort. A functioning refugee system should entail commitments that all decent people can agree on, based on our common humanity. Refuge is about getting development policies right in a small number of countries. Wrested back from complicating and extraneous debates on globalisation and the right to migrate, we can begin to re-imagine a refugee system that reconciles refuge with democracy.