Challenging the International Response to the Refugee Crisis

The Status Quo of the Refugee Crisis

The eruption of events of mass violence in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East has driven the number of displaced people globally to their highest since World War II. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that around 66 million people worldwide have been displaced by force from their homes. While most of them stay within their own borders, a third (over 20 million) have no choice but to flee their violence-ridden states of origin. 

Thus far, the global response of most developed countries has been to funnel money into the international refugee support system, which provides humanitarian aid relief through the establishment of refugee camps. As these camps are short-term solutions, in most host countries, refugees lack the right to work or move freely.

This might not have been a problem if the duration of their stays were short, however the conflicts from which refugees flee oftentimes last indefinitely. For instance, Syria has been torn apart by a civil war since 2015, seeing the displacement of over 6.6 million refugees and 6.1 million internally displaced persons. As refugees are likely to stay for long periods of time in their host countries, their integration in asylum-providing countries would appear to be the most adequate long-term solution for the ongoing refugee crisis.

Theoretically, this solution is supported by the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 protocol, which emphasizes the integration of refugees into the host country that would shelter them. It recommends the designation of socio-economic privileges designed to assist integration, and encourages these countries to facilitate the naturalization of refugees. Despite the Convention, there has been little overall effort to integrate refugees into their host countries through either education or employment. Despite this, these countries stand to gain much from refugee integration into labour markets specifically.

Reduction of prejudice

Firstly, improving their employment opportunities may ameliorate the acceptance and social inclusion of refugees. Failed integration, on the other hand, carries many costs, these not only being economic due to the resource-intensity of refugee camps, but also in terms of social tensions, prejudices and inequalities. Allport’s contact theory states that the increase of contact between two groups leads to a reduction of prejudicial attitudes and movement beyond racial and ethnic cleavages.

But the success of integration goes beyond the mere sharing of space. It is also dependent on continued social and economic interaction between them, which the support of an authority can provide through not only structure, but also power to promote greater contact. As such, policies of integration should aim to decrease isolation and separation, making refugees a part of the host country’s society through the provision of language and vocational skill training. 

Economic potential

Furthermore, integration into mainstream society through employment and education would provide autonomy and self-sufficiency to refugees. This would not only restore a sense of dignity, but it would also enhance their quality of life and improve their skill set. Refugees should not be reduced to passive victims of circumstance, as they are portrayed in mainstream discourse, but should be perceived as an untapped pool of skills, talents, and aspirations.

Many countries have been very conservative when it comes to employment integration, due to possible job competition between natives and foreigners. Under current regulation in OECD countries, Syrian refugees may apply for work permits six months after registering for temporary protection. However, being restricted to jobs in their area of registration, and inhabiting refugee camps located at border areas with few employment opportunities, it is extremely challenging for refugees to secure formal employment.

In addition, in many countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, refugees completely lack any right to work, rendering any hopes of economic integration completely moot. This leads to devastating consequences for them, such as long-term erosion of skills, talents, and aspirations, in turn exacerbating a sense of alienation from the refugee population. Nevertheless, some countries have witnessed certain degrees of success when shifting focus from emergency relief for refugee populations to development.

Case studies: Uganda vs. Jordan

Contrary to its neighbours Kenya and Ethiopia, Uganda decided to promote the right to work and freedom of movement for refugees by replacing encampment with refugee settlements that could economically and socially interact with the wider Ugandan national economy. Thanks to its 2002 Self-Reliance Strategy, refugees are allowed to access cultivable land in rural settlements, start their own businesses in cities, and seek employment.

Uganda’s biggest refugee settlement, Nakivale, represents one of the most successful examples of refugee integration. Indeed, its intense economic activity embraces diversification and specialization, made possible by multiple training centres and refugee-owned businesses. Ugandans are important customers for these settlements and often visit Nakivale’s market, which is known for its high-quality products. In addition, some refugees from Nakivale have been able to move to the capital, Kampala, and find employment opportunities there. Although the camp is still far from perfect, it is better than any other refugee settlement in Africa.

In other countries where stricter policies have been imposed, refugees often have no choice but to turn to the informal economy for economic opportunities. Indeed, Jordan’s urban refugees – consisting of 83% of its refugee population – report lacking access to international assistance, which explains their almost total reliance on the informal economic sector. For many, work permits are either too expensive or too hard to access. These policy choices in Jordan are motivated by economic concerns, such as increased labor market competition, which are fuelled by the fact that Jordan’s population consists of around 2.7 million refugees, almost half of its 6 million population.

Is integration possible?

Integration of refugees is a complex task for a host country. Some countries face more challenges than others as they all vary both in the influx of accepted refugees and in the state’s structural characteristics. For instance, it can be argued that countries that receive the bulk of Syrian refugees like Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, face more socio-economic obstacles for the integration of refugees into their national economy than some wealthier EU countries, who have been reluctant to take in as many refugees. Yet, integration as a dynamic and multifaceted process requires efforts by all parties to help refugees adapt to their host society.

Right now, the international refugee system lacks the expertise in development needed to find a market-based solution that promotes refugee autonomy. Seeing as the refugee crisis has consistently grown since World War II and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing, states and international actors need to reconsider how they approach the pressing issue of the mass displacement of people. Moreover, the World Bank estimated in 2018 that climate change-related weather events will generate around 143 million displaced people in three key regions (Latin America, sub-Sahara Africa and Southeast Asia) by 2050. As the international refugee regime will be overwhelmed by the arrival of these climate refugees who are likely to permanently lose their homes due to climate change, the status quo cannot persist. We need long-term solutions to the refugee crisis, and integration within host countries appears to be the most feasible way to get there. In other words, the pursuit of refugee integration calls for a questioning of the international system’s current objectives and policies. 

Edited by Marshall Zuckerman.

Photo credits: “Mentao refugee camp in Burkina Faso” by Oxfam International. Published on August 14, 2012. This work is licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic. No changes were made.

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