Features

The camps don’t work

25 March 2017

9:00 AM

25 March 2017

9:00 AM

The civil war in Syria, and the resulting displacement of half the population, has been the tragedy of our times. We cannot turn our backs on the ten million people who have been forced to flee their homes. Every decent society knows this and knows that it’s our moral duty to come up with a workable way of helping the refugees. But while the scale of the displacement is substantial, it is not unmanageable. The 21st century should be capable of dealing with such catastrophes and we must prepare ourselves actually to do so.

To rise to the challenge, we need to combine the instinctive compassion that mass suffering arouses with the dispassionate analysis necessary to craft an effective response. We need the heart supported by the head. The growing humanitarian crisis has come about because we’ve deployed one without the other. Our response has veered between the heartless head and the headless heart, and the results have been calamitous.

Paul Collier and Kevin Watkins from Save the Children discuss how to make aid work again:

We all, by and large, agree that we have a duty to help refugees. We have a duty of rescue, but what does that entail? The standard example in moral philosophy is of the child drowning in the pond. We, as passers-by, have an unequivocal duty to pull the child out. We are not entitled to protest, ‘Where are the parents?’ or, ‘Why isn’t there a fence?’ Similarly, the child is not shouting, ‘I demand my rights!’ It shouts ‘Help!’ Having pulled the child out, we should then use our best endeavours to get it dry, and to return it safely to its parents. What, then, is the equivalent for a displaced family? The common duty is to do what is reasonably possible to restore normality.

So here’s the crucial question: what, beyond safety itself, are the critical elements of normality for a Syrian refugee? The entire international refugee support system has presumed that the answer is food and shelter. It is structured to deliver them in the most efficient organisational form — camps.

But is this really the right response in 2017? The system was designed to cope with the displaced of post-war central Europe, many of them Germans who had fled the Russians, or Jews freed from the concentration camps. While they were in transit, food and shelter were indeed what they needed. But what about today? It’s true some refugees still need temporary humanitarian support — but for most the priority is quite different.

Refugees nowadays do not have the luxury of a short-term solution. The problems they are fleeing are likely to last for a very long time. Imagine yourself in their position, displaced with your family. Would you really resign yourself to years in a refugee camp, living off food tokens, housed in a converted container? Most Syrians, indeed most refugees globally, choose to ignore the whole international support system. They head for the cities and try to find work there, even if they have to do it illegally. Understanding why they do this is not difficult. Their priority, just as yours would be, is to restore autonomy.


The refugee system is the apex of international humanitarian provision. UNHCR, and its penumbra of similar organisations, are designed for care. Like all welfare programmes, theirs treats people as passive recipients. Inadvertently, it infantilises. That so many refugees forgo this care, preferring the struggle of earning a living beneath the official radar of regulations that prohibit it, is testimony to the heroism of the human spirit. We shouldn’t, even with the best intentions, crush that spirit. We should do what we can to make autonomy less grim.

For Syrian refugees we can do a lot. The duty of rescue towards refugees applies to all societies in a position to help, but this ‘principle of solidarity’ is complemented by comparative advantage: each society should concentrate on contributing that which it is best placed to provide.

Neighbouring countries are usually best placed to provide the physical location for safe haven — they are the easiest to reach and often speak the same language. When Nazi Germany turned on its Jewish citizens, it was the duty of the rest of Europe to provide proximate safe haven. Since 2011, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon have been in the same position with regard to the Syrians. The question of admitting refugees to Britain today may soak up much of the political attention, but it’s not the way to restore normality or autonomy to these millions of people.

Our comparative advantage — the way in which we can help most — is obvious. We are much richer than the neighbouring haven countries, and so should pick up the bulk of the tab, which in fact we’re doing: the £1 billion donated by the British government is almost as much as contributions from the rest of Europe put together. Our businesses should be generating the jobs that refugees could do in the neighbouring ‘haven’ countries.

Unfortunately, the duty of rescue towards refugees has been badly misunderstood. For the first four years of the Syrian conflict, Europe essentially denied that it had such a duty. Only when a small minority of refugees in safe haven in Turkey began to take their chances of migrating to Europe did the question get posed. Almost inevitably, the incipient influx shrivelled the question to ‘Do we let them in?’ In the process, a moral duty around which all could readily have united (bar the 1 per cent of any society that is psychopathic) was transformed into the most divisive and ugly issue in politics: ‘Should Muslim migrants be welcomed?’

Inevitably, this rapidly degenerated into the familiar polarised conflict between those who regard themselves as occupying the moral high ground of human decency, and those who regard themselves as mounting a desperate defence of their homeland.

The key confusion has been to conflate refugees with migrants. Refugees, by definition, are people who didn’t choose to be migrants: they wanted to live at home but their home became unsafe. Migrants are people who seek a better life. Migrants go to honeypots — dream locations can readily be ranked by their desirability. Refugees do not go to dream locations; they are seeking proximate havens. All of the top ten destinations for refugees are themselves countries of emigration. All are poor countries in disorderly neighbourhoods.

Migrants consciously embrace the prospect of living in a new society. The recent injunction of the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, to ‘act normal or leave’ is an ethically reasonable requirement of those who choose to come, and one that most migrants are willing to meet. But because the goal of refugees is to restore normality, they have not chosen to embrace a new society. On the contrary, their priority is likely to be to hang on to the culture of their own community.

Even after the defeat of the Nazis, few of the Jews who survived the Holocaust hoped to go back to Germany: the right objective was permanent resettlement. But most of today’s refugees do hope to return to their homes. Individuals in danger of persecution will always need a haven and we must have effective processes to provide one. But the image of the persecuted individual is long outmoded as representative of the typical refugee. Most refugees are groups fleeing disorder or famine. They seek to restore normality, not build a new life in an alien society.

A humane international response would be to encourage this entirely reasonable desire, which means not ‘bringing them here’ or packing them into stagnating camps, but helping them to find work; helping them get on. In the years while they are in havens, our priority should be to restore the autonomy and community that are the bedrocks of normality. In havens and in post-conflict societies, our firms, not our NGOs, will be the critical organisations. Entrepreneurs, not lawyers, will wield the critical skills.

Of course, it is sometimes possible to turn a refugee into a migrant, if the lure is sufficient. This is what happened when northern Europe briefly opened its borders in 2015. What hit the media were those images of thousands of people on the move. What was ignored was that the vast majority of Syrian refugees stayed put in the neighbourhood havens. While the mass flight out of Syria had been demographically unselective, the more modest rush to Europe was highly selective. Contrary to the media images, which focused on women and children, it was 70 per cent male. Because of the high cost of buying a place on a boat run by people-smugglers — more than the annual income of the average Syrian, to be paid in cash — those reaching Europe were the affluent.

And most crucially, as with all migration from poor countries to rich ones, the strongest incentive was for the highly educated. Less that 5 per cent of Syrians have come to Europe, but my co-author Alex Betts and I estimate that this group includes something between a third and a half of all Syrians with university-level education. These are the very people who will be needed to rebuild Syria. Despite the vocabulary, post-conflict ‘reconstruction’ is not primarily about pouring concrete; it is about renewing organisations. Instead of fussing over whether these educated Syrians will integrate into European culture, we should be enabling and encouraging them to retain their links with home.

There are the beginnings of an awakening about all this. In October the World Bank approved its first refugee loan — for job generation for Syrian refugees in Jordan. And at last there is innovation: the bank has also just won authority to use aid to bear some of the financial risks facing firms in fragile states.

So this is the real answer for refugees, not tents and food but autonomy and community. It’s what you would want in their position. In asking the development agencies to scale-up and integrate the new mechanisms for generating jobs for refugees with those for speeding post-conflict recovery, it would at last become possible to meet our true international duty of rescue. In the process we should free ourselves from the lazy trap of fitting the present into the past.

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