If No One Wants Them, Where Do We Resettle The World’s Refugees?

The droughts in Somalia are creating the latest refugee crisis. At the same time, Western countries are clamping down on asylum claims. But a new type of city could house refugees and give them a chance to form their own economies.


The drought in Somalia has gone from bad to worse. At least 29,000 children have died in the worst famine in 60 years. If that weren’t enough, the provisional authority governing Somalia has virtually no control outside Mogadishu (where a cholera outbreak is spreading), while Al-Shabbab insurgents controlling the southern arm of the country are both blocking aid groups from entering and preventing refugees from leaving. Twelve million people across the Horn of Africa are in need of food, the U.N. says. Those who can flee, are. More than a million refugees have already crossed into Ethiopia and especially Kenya, where the camps at Dadaab have quickly become the world’s largest. Are camps still the best ways to deal with refugees? As western countries accept fewer and fewer asylum seekers, it may require a rethinking of what to do during the next crisis.

In the case of Somalia, neighboring Kenya doesn’t want the refugees. “Personally, I’ve done what I could,” Kenya’s immigration minister Gerald Otieno Kajwang told The New York Times in July, before the U.N. had even officially declared a famine. “But the numbers coming in are too large that they threaten our security.”

He has a right to be worried. Somalia was one of the world’s largest sources of refugees last year, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. It is a given that many Somalis in Kenya will never return home, but where will they go? The number of formal asylum seekers in industrialized countries has fallen in half over the past decade, most likely because of tightening policies. Even as the number of refugees grows, wealthy nations are trying to deny them access. Arrival City author Doug Saunders describes the conflict between sovereignty and human rights as “the central paradox of asylum”:

What right does a non-citizen have to enter a foreign country without permission, especially when the very act of entering a country without papers means that person is ostensibly guilty of a crime? On the other hand, what is the genuine refugee to do: if your government is attempting to kill you or make your life unlivable, you are effectively a citizen of nowhere, and you have no human rights.

Meanwhile, European and American citizens are convinced their countries are being overrun by refugees. A recent study in the United Kingdom asked voters how many refugees they believe Britain adopts each year. The average guess was 100,000; the actual number, 4,700. How do you convince paranoid nations to take in refugees (at least the ones who have made it that far)?

One answer is to spread the responsibility around. In his new book Frontier Justice Canadian journalist and ethicist Andrew Lamey proposes a system in which refugees are spared detention and promised speedy due process, but with the caveat that refugees could ultimately be settled anywhere, not just the country they came to; a promise and a threat to keep their claims honest. It’s a sound plan that’s been considered before. In 2003 the EU agreed on British prime minister Tony Blair’s plan to create “external asylum processing centres” to weigh cases and assign refugees around Europe. But it never went anywhere, Saunders writes, because “some countries, like Sweden, considered it unworkably inhumane.”

Perhaps the answer is closer at hand. If famines are ultimately a failure of governance rather than crops–as Nobel Prize-winner Amartya Sen argued in his landmark Poverty and Famines–then what Somalia needs isn’t aid, but good governance. Or at the very least, a pocket of good governance willing to take refugees in.


That’s the thinking behind Paul Romer’s notion of “charter cities,” enclaves of open immigration and good governance surgically inserted into sovereign states in troubled regions. “There are billions of people in developing countries who don’t have even a single city that would be willing to welcome them,” Romer said in March at TED, referring to the would-be economic refugees denied entrance to the developed world for work. His solution? Build new cities at home, using the laissez-faire, export-oriented model of Hong Kong and Singapore in the 1960s.

Would a charter city work in Somalia? Romer wouldn’t try, as he’s understandably loath to build one where bullets are flying. But the government of Honduras is taking him up on it, amending its constitution and setting aside a thousand square kilometers of jungle for the megacity of 10 million people he envisions.

Whether it’s ever built and follows his model is an open question, but Romer isn’t wrong to think that geography is destiny. New research by Branko Milanovic, a World Bank economist, has found that inequality between countries–especially between developed and developing ones–soared along with GDP. And where do we see this in action? In migration patterns. “Inequality is now determined more by where you live than the class you belong to,” says Milanovic. The only solution is to become a refugee.

Read more from The Butterfly Effect

[Image: UK Department for International Development’s photostream]


About the author

He is the author, with John D. Kasarda, of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, which examines how and where we choose to live in an interconnected world