Why Don’t
We Just…
let refugees work?

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Around the world, amid violence in countries like Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan, more people are displaced from their homes than at any time since the Second World War. Unlike in the past, significant numbers are willing and able to travel to Europe. Since 2015, around 1.5 million asylum seekers have crossed the Mediterranean, and nearly 10,000 have drowned en route. The European political response has been muddled and incoherent, based more on panic than strategy.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly opened Europe’s doors in August 2015, declaring “we will manage” before reversing that decision just six months later by working with the European Union to close off the route from Turkey. Aside from the human tragedy the failure had political consequences: the refugee crisis became the rallying call of the Brexit campaign, which in turn threatens to undermine the European Union.

To find solutions, we need a sense of perspective. Ninety per cent of the world’s refugees are in developing regions of Europe. In fact, 60 per cent are in just 10 host countries, none of which are in Europe. They are countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Uganda, Kenya and Pakistan. But some refugees have risked their lives coming to Europe because our collective response in these countries is so inadequate. For every £1 spent on a refugee here, we spend less than 1p on a refugee in these countries.

The standard response of the international humanitarian system is refugee camps. When a crisis strikes aid agencies create camps to provide food, clothing and shelter. They offer immediate relief. The problem is that refugees remain there in limbo, sometimes for decades. In the Dadaab camps in Kenya, around 350,000 refugees live in tents, and many have been there since 1992. And most camps prevent refugees working or leaving the camps.

Given how miserable refugee camps are, it’s understandable that most refugees bypass them entirely. Most go to towns and cities in the haven counties, where they are usually face the double bind of being denied both assistance and the right to work. Their only other alternative is to embark on dangerous journeys to richer parts of the world with gangs of human smugglers, just like we’ve seen in Europe.

We need to move beyond this impossible choice between camps, urban destitution and perilous journeys. To do that, we need to give refugees autonomy and dignity in the safe haven countries. And the key to this has to be jobs. Uganda is one of the few haven countries that lets its one million refugees work, and not only do they thrive but they also contribute to the host economy.

Of course, not all host countries are as open as Uganda but with the right investment and support development – rather than just humanitarian – interventions could bring opportunity and employment to both refugees and the citizens of the host countries, and enable refugees to ultimately return home with the skills needed to rebuild post-conflict societies. In Jordan, a country that restricts refugees’ right to work, a pilot is underway that is trying to do just that, with UK government assistance to create jobs for both Syrian refugees and host nationals within development areas. It has a long way to go but at least offers hope that refugees can live more normal lives until they can go home or be resettled elsewhere, without them having to risk their lives on rickety boats.

Alexander Betts (pictured) is professor of forced migration and international affairs, and Paul Collier is professor of economics and public policy, both at Oxford University. They are authors of Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System (Allen Lane, £20)

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