A woman and her child walk along the 'Champs Elysees', the main street in the Zaatari refugee camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan / Photo by Russell Watkins/Department for International Development
A woman and her child walk along the ‘Champs Elysees’, the main street in the Zaatari refugee camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan / Photo by Russell Watkins/Department for International Development

Numerous studies suggest host countries would, on the whole, benefit from allowing refugees to work.

The flaw in the host countries’ thinking is that refugees are unable to become active participants in economic growth by creating jobs as business owners, providing goods and services to the local market, boosting exports, and increasing the overall wealth of the country.

However, refugees have proven to be incredibly dynamic and creative when given the opportunity. Many refugees have started their own businesses, even when the country’s laws make it virtually impossible to turn a profit, simply because they are desperate to use and develop their skills. Many refugees work informally (i.e., illegally, meaning, the government will not issue them a license or permit) either for themselves or for black market employers, which ironically has a worse effect on the availability of jobs for nationals than if the refugees were working in the formal (legal) labor market.

Many refugees have started their own businesses, even when the country’s laws make it virtually impossible to turn a profit, simply because they are desperate to use and develop their skills.

These refugees often have skills, talent, education, and work ethic that would be immense assets not only to themselves and their families, but to the countries hosting them, to their home countries, and to business owners, including international investors.

Very positive developments have occurred in recent years to give refugees more freedom:

The government of Turkey has independently developed a refugee camp program that provides more opportunities and better living conditions for refugees, including electricity, shipping containers (instead of tents) as homes, and economic activity, including three grocery stores and a few small businesses.

In the Zaatari camp in Jordan, refugees have developed an improvised city of 83,000 people, including electricity, markets, boulevards, and education for children.

Moreover in 2014 the UNHCR announced that it would be shifting away from promoting refugee camps. In its 2014 Policy on Alternatives to Camps, it explained:

“From the perspective of refugees, alternatives to camps means being able to exercise rights and freedoms, make meaningful choices regarding their lives and have the possibility to live with greater dignity, independence and normality as members of communities.”

A bakery at Al-Za'tari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan / Photo by Mustafa Bader
A bakery at Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan / Photo by Mustafa Bader

UNHCR stated that instead of camps, it would search for more durable solutions, such as methods of integrating people into the local population. While the announcement is a major, commendable step forward, convincing host governments to participate effectively in integration efforts will be very challenging politically and could take generations to achieve.

That means generations of refugees born into refugee camps and raised with few opportunities to discover or develop their capabilities or contribute to society in a meaningful way.

Clearly we need a practical, near-term solution based on political realities with achievable objectives to solve this problem.

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