Providing jobs for refugees won't fix the broken system


Picture of Heaven Crawley
Heaven Crawley

Chair in International Migration at Coventry University

Heaven Crawley is Research Professor at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations

In their new book ‘Refuge’, published last month, Oxford professors Alexander Betts and Paul Collier argue that “the broken refugee system” can be mended by establishing jobs for refugees in special economic zones (SEZs) in countries neighbouring conflict areas. The authors focus on Jordan, currently host to an estimated 650,000 refugees from Syria.

The proposition is simple: provide companies with tax incentives and opportunities for trade in return for providing refugees with opportunities for work, autonomy and self-reliance. Developing countries ‒ who host the vast majority of the world’s refugees – will receive much-needed economic support. In return, refugees will decide not to come to Europe, sparing further political fallout from the arrival of those who make it – and the deaths of those who don’t.

The idea that jobs for refugees could be a ‘silver bullet’ has led to largely positive press for the book, most notably from politicians desperately seeking solutions and from businesses keen to find new ways to make money. But for many others – in particular those working with refugees on the ground – the focus on the SEZs is a red herring, distracting policymakers from the much more complex and difficult task of addressing the drivers of forced migration and the highly varied socio-economic and political contexts within which refugees live.

Many question the geographical starting point. For Betts and Collier, the world woke up to the refugee crisis in April 2015 when 700 people drowned crossing the sea to Lampedusa, Italy.

What they mean, of course, is that Europe woke up. Millions of people have been displaced from their home countries to neighbouring countries in the so-called developing world for decades. The fact that the European Union was unable to deal with the increased arrival of refugees and migrants, more than half of whom were fleeing the conflict in Syria, says more about the political and policy failings of Europe than it does about the realities of forced displacement.

Others challenge Betts and Collier’s assertion that their ideas are new. The authors accuse the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) of living in a time warp and failing to provide refugees with opportunities for economic autonomy, instead trapping them in ‘humanitarian silos’ where they are left to fester for decades.

Low-skilled, often poorly-paid manual work in the absence of rights and protection simply did not give the refugees hope for the future

This is a gross representation of the UNHCR’s work. Socio-economic rights for refugees are included in the 1951 Refugee Convention policies. Allowing refugees to work, advocating for them to live outside of camps and addressing the root causes of forced displacement have been at the heart of UNHCR’s approach since the early 1980s.

Today only 21% of the world’s refugees live in refugee camps. The problem is not the UNHCR or the international framework for refugees but rather the failure of states to step up to their obligations and to create the conditions in which refugees can thrive, not simply survive. Nowhere has that been seen more clearly than in Europe.

Putting Europe’s failings at the centre of any proposal to address the needs of the world’s refugees is therefore deeply problematic.

For a start, it is clear that the only reason the SEZs have come to the centre of the policy debate is because the interests of Europe and Jordan align. On the one hand politicians and policymakers are urgently looking for ways to reduce the number of refugees coming to Europe. At the same time countries such as Jordan are looking for ways to improve their economic and political position.

While the arrival of large numbers of refugees had undoubtedly imposed strains on the Jordanian economy, Jordan’s budget deficit stood at US$1.44bn even in 2011, before the first Syrians began to cross the border. This deficit is largely attributable to structural constraints and domestic policies, including a bloated public sector and dependence on others for more than 90% of the country’s energy needs.

Second, evidence from India and elsewhere shows that labour rights in the SEZs have often been compromised, resulting in extremely low wages, forced overtime and different forms of abuse – so much so that in India they have been dubbed ‘special exploitation zones’. The jobs on offer are typically low- or semi-skilled, repetitive, and with long hours.

In Jordan, those who have tried to hire Syrians within the SEZs have found the situation complicated. For many Syrians the gains of being legally employed are simply not worth the losses. Outside of the SEZs Syrian refugees are barred from applying for jobs as accountant, doctors, engineers, lawyers and teachers for which they have previously been trained.

Jobs for refugees remain secondary to the overarching objective of the refugee system: to provide protection to those fleeing conflict

Finally, it’s difficult to see how the SEZs could be part of the solution in countries where large numbers of refugees are currently hosted. The interests of the EU and Jordan may align but the interests of the EU and Iran, currently host to nearly one million Afghan refugees who are registered and nearly a million more who are undocumented, , most definitely do not. And what about Chad, host to 420,000 refugees from surrounding countries and reeling from attacks by Boko Haram? Or Sudan, with an estimated 356,000 refugees and whose President, Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, is ‘at large’, facing an International Criminal Court warrant alleging war crimes and crimes against humanity?

Our own research with 500 refugees and migrants who crossed the Mediterranean to Europe during 2015 found that many had moved on from countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey not just because of the lack of economic opportunities but because they couldn’t secure protection, education and healthcare for their children. These findings are reinforced by research published by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

Low-skilled, often poorly-paid manual work in the absence of rights and protection simply did not give the refugees hope for the future. Rather than giving governments the opportunity to shift the focus away from protection, we need to reorient the discussion towards how we can secure refugee rights, both in countries that are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention and those that are not.

None of this is to suggest that jobs for refugees are not important. But they remain secondary to the overarching objective of the refugee system, namely to provide protection to those fleeing conflict, persecution and human rights abuse in their own countries.

Giving refugees protection and rights makes it much more likely that jobs and other opportunities will follow. Without protection and a sense of the future, refugees will continue to move on.

Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo