The Western belief that refugees are a burden is the root cause of today’s global crisis

A country that welcomes refugees will benefit from new opportunities.
A country that welcomes refugees will benefit from new opportunities.
Image: AP Photo/Bilal Hussein
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Conventional wisdom holds that the global refugee crisis has placed an unprecedented burden on the world’s resources. Today, roughly 65 million people worldwide have been displaced by war or disaster. Around 20 million have fled across a border, becoming refugees. The Syrian Civil War alone forced people to flee the country on a scale the world hasn’t seen since World War II.

But while it’s easy to blame the disaster on the sheer overwhelming size of the crisis, doing so would be a mistake, according to Oxford professors Paul Collier and Alexander Betts. In their new book, Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World, Collier and Betts argue that the refugee crisis is the result not of numbers, but of policy. In other words, the problem isn’t that a great number of refugees create an unsustainable burden. The problem is that refugees are seen as a burden in the first place. Nations vie with each other to turn them away. At best, refugees are segregated into temporary locations on arid, inhospitable land.

This view of refugees is utterly wrong, according to Collier and Betts. Beyond humanitarian concerns, countries around the world are missing out on the opportunity to welcome refugees as a potential source of knowledge, skill, and economic development.

The thesis of Refuge may seem counterintuitive. The vision of refugees as a burden has become deeply inscribed in Western policy and in popular consciousness. In the US, discussions about Syrian refugees focus not on the skills they might bring to the US, but on unfounded fears that they pose a terrorist danger.

Media depictions of refugees often center on camps, which are mostly places of despair—not vibrant economic activity. Collier and Betts write that 80% of refugees living in camps are trapped there for five years or more. Refugees in camps often aren’t allowed to work. “People are born into camps, grow up in camps, and become adults in camps,” the authors write. “Without durable solutions, their lives become focused more on survival than hope.” Some, in desperation, move to urban areas, where they are still not allowed to work, receive little or no aid, and sink into destitution. Others try to travel to wealthier countries like Europe at substantial risk, as the periodic stories of refugee drownings make clear.

The problem, according to Collier and Betts, is that the international community is focused solely on rescue. Rescue is certainly important; refugees need to escape from immediate peril and violence. But once they are relatively safe, refugees, like all humans, also need autonomy. People need the chance to provide for themselves and their children, and to live meaningful lives.

“Although refugees have vulnerabilities, they also have capabilities,” Betts told me by email. “If we give them basic economic freedoms, like the opportunity to work or start businesses, then they can help themselves and contribute to countries that host them.”

This idea isn’t just theoretical. A few countries have given refugees more economic rights, with very positive results. Uganda, for example, borders conflict-prone countries like Rwanda and South Sudan. It has had numerous waves of refugees cross its borders over decades. Rather than segregate refugees in camps in forced indolence, the country has chosen to allow refugees freedom of movement and the opportunity to work. The result, according to Betts, is that in the capital city of Kampala, “21% of refugees own a business that employs at least one person and 40% of the people they employ are host nationals.”

Jordan has also been experimenting with new approaches to economic opportunity for refugees. Jordan has taken in between 600,000 and 1 million Syrian refugees—a huge number for a country with a population of less than 10 million people. It has established special economic zones, where Syrians are given the right to work in certain industries and companies. Initial prospects for the program look good, although Betts says, “to sustain such models, outside support is needed.” European governments and the US need to set up trade concessions and business incentives to encourage investment and help make the venture profitable.

There is a strong moral case for this kind of investment from wealthier, industrialized countries. Refugee crises fall most heavily on countries located near weak or failing states. Countries next to poor, conflict-ridden countries are often poor and conflict-ridden themselves, which means that the burden of dealing with humanitarian catastrophe falls on those least able to shoulder it. Richer countries have an ethical duty to help.

They also have practical incentives. If refugees have more opportunities, more autonomy, and better lives in neighboring countries, they are unlikely to feel the need to travel further abroad. When refugees stay closer to home, they are also more likely to return when conflict is over, which can help war-torn nations recover more quickly, reducing instability and terrorism worldwide. By failing to support nations like Jordan and Lebanon, and by not putting pressure on Israel to accept refugees, Europe created its own disaster, and may have weakened a post-conflict Syria.

“The European refugee crisis was not a crisis of numbers; it was a crisis of politics,” Betts says. “Twenty-eight EU member states should have been able to manage an influx of 1 million refugees—a number less than, say, Lebanon or Uganda host by themselves.” But rather than adequately fund refugee efforts in countries near Syria while accepting a pre-established number of Syrians in a show of solidarity, Europe panicked. Countries vied to put in place policies to discourage refugees. Germany went to the other extreme, declaring welcome for all—a policy that encouraged many Syrians to make dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean, resulting in death, recriminations, and in many nations nationalist backlash.

Refuge makes a strong case that refugee outflows do not need to lead to chaos, drownings, misery, and ugly ethno-nationalism. The Syrian refugee crisis has been a tragedy. But if the international community is willing to learn from it, it can also be an opportunity for change. When refugees are treated as potential contributors, some good can be rescued from disaster.