Help Refugees Help Themselves: Let Displaced Syrians Join the Labor Market

By Betts, Alexander; Collier, Paul | Foreign Affairs, November/December 2015 | Go to article overview

Help Refugees Help Themselves: Let Displaced Syrians Join the Labor Market


Betts, Alexander, Collier, Paul, Foreign Affairs


There are now some 60 million displaced people around the world, more than at any time since World War II. The Syrian crisis alone, which has created the largest refugee shock of the era, has displaced some ten million people, around four million of them across international borders. In recent months, Western attention has focused almost exclusively on the flood of these refugees to Europe. Yet most of the Syrian refugees have been taken in not by Western countries but by Syria's neighboring states: Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, whose capacity has been overwhelmed. Lebanon, with a population of around four million and a territory smaller than Maryland, is hosting over a million Syrian refugees. Young people are overrepresented in the refugee population, so that more than half of the school-aged children in Lebanon are now Syrian.

International policy toward the Syrian refugee crisis is both antiquated and fueled by panic. It is premised on the same logic that has characterized refugee policy since the 1950s: donors write checks to support humanitarian relief, and countries that receive refugees are expected to house and care for them, often in camps. The panic comes from Europe, where debate has focused on how to fairly distribute hundreds of thousands of new arrivals, from both Syria and elsewhere, across the European Union and how to prevent asylum seekers from attempting the perilous journey across the Mediterranean or through the western Balkans.

This boats-and-camps approach misses the core of the problem. As European countries struggle with what to do about the influx of people displaced by violence in the Middle East who have arrived in Europe in recent months, they should work harder to address the refugee crisis closer to its main source: Syria. Indeed, only around four percent of displaced Syrians have attempted to reach Europe; around 60 percent of the displaced, or more than six million people, remain in Syria, many unwillingly-because since 2014, Jordan and Lebanon have effectively kept their borders closed. Of those refugees who have left Syria, a large majority have gone not to refugee camps or to Europe but to Amman, Beirut, and other Middle Eastern cities to work, often illegally and for low pay. Some 83 percent of Jordan's refugees live in cities-around 170,000 in Amman alone. Their situation is clearly unsustainable: without access to international or state assistance, children grow up without education and families deplete their savings. The fate of the refugees who stay in the camps is similarly unfortunate: there, displaced Syrians languish under extreme dependency. Lacking access to work, teenage girls are sometimes lured into prostitution, and teenage boys are lured back to Syria to join armed gangs.

To avoid such outcomes, donor states and international organizations such as the un have urged the governments of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey to permanently integrate Syrian refugees into their societies. But leaders in those countries are deeply resistant to that idea, because they perceive refugees as a threat to domestic employment and a drain on stretched budgets. Nor are Syrian refugees easily incorporated into the fragile ethnic and sectarian balances that are crucial for maintaining stability in all three countries.

The need for a fresh approach to the crisis is obvious. To properly care for the displaced, policymakers must first understand the concerns of the states that host them. An effective refugee policy should improve the lives of the 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.

Jordan offers one place to begin. There, a reconsidered refugee policy would integrate displaced Syrians into specially created economic zones, offering Syrian refugees employment and autonomy, incubating businesses in preparation for the eventual end of the civil war in Syria, and aiding Jordan's aspirations for industrial development. …

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