The world’s eyes are fixed on one of the most pressing social crises of our time—the refugee crisis unfolding across Central Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Driven by factors ranging from conflict and poverty to climate change and extremism, this mass migration has brought the plights of violent and impoverished regions to the doorsteps of some of the world’s wealthiest countries.
The total number of refugees has steadily increased since the onset of the conflict in Syria in 2011, from 10.4 million to an estimated 19.5 million by mid-2015, the highest level in 20 years.
Syria remains the largest source country of refugees—currently estimated at 4.8 million according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), up from 20,000 at the end of 2010. An additional 6.5 million people have been displaced within the country. In addition to the Syrian crisis, conflicts in Afghanistan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, and Ukraine, among others, have contributed to prevailing trends.
Despite ongoing efforts by the international community, the number of refugees able to return to their countries of origin has trended downward, meaning that many refugees will be forced to reside in exile for years to come. More than half of the world’s refugees have lived in exile for more than five years, without freedom of movement or the right to work, while the average length of exile has now reached 20 years.
Rapidly rising refugee populations have meant an undue economic burden on countries bordering these conflict zones. In the case of the Syrian conflict, the burden has fallen primarily on Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. As of mid-2015 Turkey was hosting the largest number of refugees, with an estimated 1.84 million within its borders, 98 percent of them Syrian. Of the top ten refugee hosting countries, five are in sub-Saharan Africa, and four of those are designated Least Developed Countries by the UN.
As Oxford University professors Alexander Betts and Paul Collier explained in a recent article, “International policy toward the refugee crisis is premised on the same logic that has characterized refugee policy since the 1950s: donors write checks to support humanitarian relief, and countries bordering conflict zones are expected to receive, house, and care for the stream of refugees, often in camps.” State responses are largely reactionary and fueled by panic: governments are primarily focused on how to fairly distribute new arrivals and prevent refugees from undertaking the dangerous journey across open seas, rather than addressing the crisis at its source.
Furthermore, a shortage of resources has resulted in short-term solutions taking precedence over long-term stability. Currently, most refugees reside within middle- and low-income border countries that have their own social issues and strained resources. The Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan—the coordinating platform for the five main Syrian-refugee host countries—was only able to fund 61% of its 2015 refugee programming needs. As a result, most funding has been channeled towards immediate needs like food, shelter, and healthcare over resilience-based programming like livelihoods training and social cohesion.
The lack of resources needed to continue supplying emergency relief and short-term aid, as well as the inability to address systemic problems, have led multilateral institutions to call for greater innovation. The response has been an increased focus on collaborative agreements between states, social entrepreneurship projects, and microfinance options that will address the cycles of poverty that begin in refugee camps, thereby reducing refugees’ long-term dependence on foreign aid.
UNHCR’s Innovation Unit is leading the humanitarian sector in this endeavor and is pushing organizations to get creative. As Innovation Officer Corinne Gray asked during a 2016 Skoll World Forum discussion on the refugee crisis, what are the new, innovative ideas? How can we increase access to education for refugee populations, support creative capacity building, and create the right environment for bottom-up innovations that empower refugees towards self-sustainability and allow for economic integration?
The first step towards transforming the crisis is understanding the concerns of both refugees and the host nations. As Betts and Collier have argued, effective refugee policy must aim to “improve the lives of 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.” By creating economic incentives for host states to integrate refugees into the local or national economy we shift the dynamic of the crisis to a mutually beneficial relationship.
The Humanitarian Innovation Project—at Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre, where Betts serves as director—is exploring this hypothesis, spearheading research and policy engagement in the refugee sector by rethinking the political economy of the refugee experience and working directly with humanitarian actors to inform work on the ground.
Last year, Betts and Collier put forth a proposal that would allow Syrian refugees to work in special economic zones (SEZs) in Jordan. This would provide displaced Syrians with access to jobs, education, and autonomy while advancing Jordan’s industrial development. The proposal focuses on the King Hussein Bin Talal Development Area, an SEZ where the Jordanian government has already invested more than 100 million dollars, and which is located close to the Zaatari refugee camp, which houses approximately 83,000 refugees. The King Hussein Bin Talal SEZ has the capacity to employ 100,000 workers but currently employs only 10,000.
Betts and Collier’s proposal would allow Syrian refugees to work in the SEZ alongside Jordanian nationals. They argue that this will not only help relieve the financial strain that hosting the refugees places on the Jordanian government, but will actually make the refugees’ presence economically beneficial for the country. For the refugees, it would mean increased autonomy and the opportunity to incubate a Syrian economy in exile.
Their ideas attracted some powerful backers. Jordan’s King Abdullah, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and World Bank President Jim Yong Kim presented a version of the proposal at an international conference on the Syrian crisis in London in February 2016. A pilot program, which will grant some 150,000 refugees the right to work in Jordan, is slated to launch this summer. If the model proves successful, it has the potential to scale and transform the response to the global refugee crisis.
In addition to this ambitious, large-scale economic integration plan, examples of smaller-scale, refugee-led social entrepreneurship are also emerging. Refugees in Berlin launched the “Arriving in Berlin” project to help new arrivals locate counseling services, doctors, lawyers, police, government authorities, and public libraries. In Uganda, a refugee from the DRC created a non-profit called Young African Refugees for Integral Development to unite fellow refugees and provide skills training to address social issues such as unemployment, public health, and access to education. Furthermore, development agencies, including SIDA and UNHCR, are increasingly including local families in refugee programming in order to build commitments from middle-income, Middle-Eastern host countries, and ease social tension while increasing development in-country.
These innovative approaches are a starting point around which other NGOs, corporate partners, and government actors can unite, but there’s still a long way to go. At Skoll, we are eager to learn more about innovative collaborations and approaches that are making headway in tackling the refugee crisis, and are actively exploring the how to best support the work on the ground.
Alexander Betts gives a more detailed presentation in support of his argument that refugees should be treated as a resource, at the 2016 Skoll World Forum.
Special thanks to Alyssa Ely for research that went into this article. Banner photo: UN Photo/Evan Schneider.