KEVIN BAIN. Refugees going nowhere – can nothing be done?

In their November 2015 Foreign Affairs article and subsequent book “Refuge – Transforming a Broken Refugee System” (reviewed here), economist Paul Collier and refugee academic Alexander Betts put forward a radical re-think of the refugee support system on the grounds that it is not a good fit for today’s world. 

Today’s large numbers of refugees are unprecedented: 25 million in havens (outside their country of origin), with 1.4 million assessed by UNHCR as needing resettlement solutions (since the annual quota is 75,000 globally, this is an 18 year average wait), and a further 41 million displaced people (inside their country of origin). It’s widely accepted that the near future doesn’t look good: the slow resolution of conflict situations means more long-term refugee families, more authoritarian governments are expected to attack their own minorities, and the closing of borders everywhere means Australia will be less inclined to go one-out with softer policies.

One of the Betts and Collier innovations which aims for amelioration but with long-term effect is to promote economic development opportunities in the countries of refuge, with the intent of achieving some normalcy in lifestyle and preparing the refugees for settlement, through opportunities for greater autonomy and income generation from jobs or business. The political task at the local level, where refugees are seen as economic rivals and/or a political threat, is to seek mutual interest and gains for host country governments and citizens. If refugees are seen as an asset not a cost, they might get a respected long-term place in situ.

Of great interest was their proposal of an economic zone for the 2 million Syrian refugees who had fled to Jordan and Lebanon, but without permanency and with severe limits on their human rights to move, work and obtain normal functioning for their families. By late 2015 the King of Jordan, UK leaders David Cameron and Gordon Brown, the UN and World Bank, President Obama, the Davos Forum and some MNCs had come up with the “Jordan Compact”, a pilot project of $2 billion in technical assistance and investment to set up five Special Economic Zones, with EU trade concessions for export goods (mainly garments), on the condition that refugees would be employed alongside nationals.

The challenges of such a project are obviously immense and the Jordan (and later Lebanon) Compacts had limited success. There is ongoing debate amongst professionals as to how and whether the existing humanitarian model can include development, but also substantial optimism, and interest in different models, including learning  from success in Uganda and Ethiopia. There are also Asian precedents: the authors say the Bataan (Philippines) Special Economic Zone was originally a refugee processing centre, and other locations were set up in Thailand for Burmese refugees and cross-border workers, SEZs in Jurong (Singapore), Penang (Malaysia), and China (Shenzhen) have been suggested for comparison.

In our part of the world, the development zone innovation could give focus to the much promoted regional solution approach, and host governments may be interested in a stakeholder consortium which utilises IFI soft loans, international corporate capital and technical assistance, support from refugee institutions seeking solutions “in place”, and “social responsibility” corporates and INGOs. A senior UN advisor to the recent UN Compacts (one on Refugees, one on Migration) called recently for inclusion as well as humanitarian assistance: “We are also looking for the hosting countries to have more inclusive policies to allow refugees access to the labour market, to allow refugee children to go to local schools, to give refugees access to national health services…We are trying to build a system that is better for refugees and the people who host them.”  Economic zone proposals could give leverage to achieve such concessions. The 100,000 refugees in Northern Malaysia, most having been there for ten years or more, and the 14,000 refugees in Indonesia are two possibilities. Can Labor earmark some of its promised $500 million transfer to the UNHCR for some feasibility studies?

In addition to the 1 million Rohingya people under existential threat, most of our Asian neighbours have real potential for strong conflict between their governments and domestic minorities.  The unforeseen Syrian situation and the disastrous consequences suggest the need for a policy response if major events start up boats again. Beyond the duty of rescue, I suggest the overarching policy principle should be that long-term people warehousing is to be avoided at all costs, but resettlement in a few first world countries for all those displaced may not be a realistic option either. Rich world money is meant to finance these alternative resettlement sites, but  an economic zone linked with the protection and support refugees are entitled to have, can extend the options and quality of life.

The proposals are meant to support refugees, not improve the first world political environment, but domestically there are likely to be gains in the refugee supporter base from those who are looking for what is rarely discussed: a credible “road map” for the future. As an additional tool in the box, it extends the rationale for refugee support beyond those driven by ethical or legal imperatives in bringing together important values of both Left (rescue, protection, human rights) and Right (economic development, skills training, enterprise, personal contribution.)  At the last ALP Conference Bill Shorten said: “Many (refugees) will not find permanent safety, the United Nations reports that in some cases there is a third generation of children being born into displacement”. So is there any better proposal to prevent wasted lives?

Kevin Bain has a background in economic analysis and teaching. His Refugee Reading Guide can be accessed at the Mornington Peninsula Human Rights Group website.

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