4 Innovations That Could Turn Refugees From Burdens Into Assets—And Save Lives

The Refugee Studies Center’s Alexander Betts thinks that simple changes—such as giving refugees travel documents and matching their jobs with the needs of host countries—could change how we solve the crisis.

4 Innovations That Could Turn Refugees From Burdens Into Assets—And Save Lives
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The Syrian refugee crisis has brought out the best and worst in political leaders. Some have opened borders to those fleeing war, persecution, and crisis. Others have shut them down. But one thing is clear: something in the system is broken.


In theory, refugees have the right to seek asylum and either integrate into a host country or return to their home country in time. In practice, millions have been stuck in interminable limbo. And according to international law (but again, also in theory), they are a global responsibility. In reality, nearby nations such as Turkey and Jordan have absorbed most of the costs. However, it doesn’t have to be so black and white, says Alexander Betts, director of the Refugee Studies Center at the University of Oxford.

“Politicians frame the issue as a zero sum issue—that if we benefit refugees, we’re imposing costs on citizens,” he says. “There are ways in which we can expand that choice set and still benefit everyone else—the host states and communities, our societies, and refugees themselves.”

In a TED talk given in February, Betts, who is also founder of the Humanitarian Innovation Project, highlighted some fascinating options for changing this conversation.

Enable Their Lives

Betts and his Oxford colleagues have been studying the economic lives of refugees in Uganda—not because Uganda is a typical host country, but because “it’s exceptional.” Unlike most host countries, says Betts, Uganda gives refugees the right to work and freedom of movement. “The results are extraordinary, both for refugees and the host community,” he says.

In the capital city of Kampala, 21% of refugees own a business that employs other people—and 40% of those employees are Ugandan nationals. Even in refugee camps, there’s vibrant, flourishing businesses such as a Congolese refugee running a digital music exchange. “Against the odds of extreme constraint, refugees are innovating,” he says. “Rather than see refugees as inevitably dependent on humanitarian assistance, we need to provide them with opportunities for human flourishing. Yes, clothes, blankets, shelter, and food are all important during the emergency phase, but we need to also look beyond that.”


Economic Zones

Even countries that don’t want to open their entire economies to refugees could provide more limited opportunities. This summer, Jordan is about to start a pilot project allowing refugees to work in an existing economic zone that is about 15 minutes from the 80,000-person Zaatari Refugee Camp on Syria’s border. The goal is to allow refugees to work alongside Jordan nationals in an area that the nation would like to develop into a manufacturing hub. The problem is that labor is lacking.

Betts—who brainstormed the idea with other NGOs, the Jordan government, and development economist Paul Collier—says the economic zone could benefit Jordan and eventually aid Syria. “We need to incubate refugees as the best source of eventually rebuilding Syria,” he says.

Matching Markets

If you’re graduating medical school in the U.S. today, you enter a preference matching system to find your first job. Graduates rank their choice of residency programs, and hospitals rank their choice of students who have applied. A computer figures out the best set of matches for everyone. Dating websites operate on a looser but similar principle.

“What we rarely do is ask refugees what they want, where they want to go,” says Betts. “But I’d argue we can do that and still make everyone better off.” Colleagues of his, Will Jones and Alexander Teytelboym, recently laid out how matching markets could work for refugees. Refugees would rank their preference of destinations, and states could rank the types of refugees they seek based on skills or language criteria. To be fair to all refugees, there would also need to be quotas for diversity and based on vulnerability—but it’s a way to increase the possibility that all parties are satisfied. This could be used inside countries, too, where governments struggle to convince local communities to accept refugee communities. “We often send engineers to rural areas and farmers to cities, which makes no sense at all,” says Betts.

Humanitarian Visas

Why shouldn’t stateless people have travel documents? Last year, more than 3,000 people died at Europe’s borders or within its territories. But the tragedy and chaos of the throngs flooding into Europe are completely avoidable. Refugees pay smugglers up to 1,000 euros to get them from Turkey to Greece, yet a budget flight to Germany costs only 200 euros.

A humanitarian visa system could exist that allows refugees to travel directly to Europe and seek asylum when they arrive. They would collect a visa at an embassy or consulate outside of Europe and simply pay their own flight or ferry. “It would save lives. It would undercut the entire market for smugglers, and it would remove the chaos we see from Europe’s frontline areas like the Greek islands,” he says. “It’s politics that prevents us from doing that.”


The idea has been applied in recent times and in history. The 1938 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Nansen International Office for Refugees in Geneva for its issuing of about 450,000 visas to stateless people and refugees who needed to flee countries such as Syria, Turkey, and Russia between 1922 and 1942, enabling them to safely travel across Europe. More recently, Brazil has pioneered this approach. It has supplied humanitarian visas to Haitians who were fleeing after the 2010 earthquake and had been taking dangerous overland routes into South America. It has also given over 2,000 Syrians these visas.

All of these options need to be considered, because the refugee crisis may be here to stay. Says Betts: “In the new world, migration is not going to go away. What we’ve seen in Europe will be with us for many years. People will continue to travel, they’ll continue to be displaced, and we need to find rational, realistic ways of managing this—not based on the old logic of humanitarian assistance, not based on the logic of charity, but building on the opportunities of globalization, markets, and mobility.”


About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.