At the end of 2016, the UNHCR reported that forced displacement affected up to 65.3 million people, a staggering increase compared to 59.5 million reported displaced just 12 months earlier. Despite the best efforts of the international community, the three traditional responses to the protection needs of displaced people, resettlement, local integration and development assistance, are inadequate. Decision makers must develop and implement a modernize humanitarian system fit for the dynamic challenges it faces. Europe and the United States demonstrate a strong transatlantic relationship when taking a pragmatic approach to responding to specific crises. A transatlantic focus on “special economic zones” represents a strategic window of opportunity for strengthening their cooperation on humanitarian assistance and implementing systematic improvements.
Traditional Avenues of Response
In 2016 and 2017, the implementation of the EU-Turkey Refugee Deal and the reduction of the refugee admission cap by the United States demonstrated a shifting away from domestic refugee resettlement. As discussed in the Atlantic Expedition memo titled Sharing Standards and Values in Development, Refugee, and Integration Policy, “the recent migrant crisis has brought longstanding tensions in Europe’s immigration and integration policies to the forefront. This is compounded by a concern in Europe and the United States that hosting refugees and migrants from fragile and conflict-afflicted states in the Middle East and North Africa increase domestic security risks, and that such persons are not easily integrated into existing socioeconomic and political systems.” U.S and European Governments desire to address the root causes of migration and support protection of refugees in transit countries.
Furthermore, local integration, a process of legal, economic, social and cultural incorporation of refugees, is often seen as a “non solution” because the likelihood that host governments will offer refugees permanent asylum and support their integration has significantly decreased. Nevertheless, nearly 60 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted by just ten countries. Countries that host large refugee populations often experience high levels of poverty and hosting refugee populations for protracted periods results in long-term economic and social impacts that can create or worsen conflict and insecurity. New policy approaches that are sustainable and scalable are essential, allowing displaced people to learn, work, and thrive until they can return home.
Lastly, more effective and continuous investments in development projects can help to address some root causes of refugee protection concerns. However, the effectiveness of development assistance and the foreign aid regime is highly scrutinized by critics in both the U.S and Europe. One central critique has been the lack of coordination among different actors. The Atlantic Expedition memo suggests that American and European humanitarian agencies improve their coordination mechanisms to more systematically and formally improve synergies in their activities. However, this is a long-term approach that doesn’t address current crises.
Alternative Protection Solution
The key to supporting a humanitarian system fit for today’s modern challenges is expanding and capitalizing on the expertise and resources of stakeholders that are not traditionally included in refugee protection models. The U.S and the EU must create multilateral and multi-stakeholder channels for cooperation to explore alternative protection solutions. One idea that should be explored is “special economic zones”. In “Help Refugees Help Themselves,” an essay in the Foreign Affairs, Alexander Betts and Paul Collier describe a consortium of countries, including all of the major Western economies, that would create financial incentives and trade concessions to spur industrial development in these zones, which would employ refugees and, in some number, citizens of the host country. Betts and Collier note that the Jordanian Government has already established a number of industrial zones for Syrian refugees through the Jordan Compact program. The Jordanian Government hopes to create jobs for 200,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. Approximately 40,000 jobs have been created in the program’s first year. Though some of the program’s promised results have been slow to emerge, if designed properly, these “special economic zones” are a politically desirable solution for European and U.S transatlantic partners to better provide a more targeted and cost effective response to the refugee crisis. Establishing economic hubs and businesses generate economic assets that benefits refugees and the host country, and addresses the issue of aid fatigue in Western countries. Altogether, transatlantic cooperation is key to addressing the weaknesses in traditional responses and introducing systematic change that improves the international community’s approach to humanitarian assistance as a whole.
Next Steps: Action Plan
Decision makers must require the collective synergies of public, private and trans-national efforts of stakeholders within their local and national institutions to test if “special economic zones” are a viable response to refugee protection challenges.
1. Form a coalition with stakeholders.
- The State Department and the Federal Foreign Office representatives -Participation of administration officials is crucial for showing the public that the program aligns with national security, economic and political concerns.
- Bipartisan experts from think tanks- These experts bring a diverse range of thought to increase the strength of the research available and public buy in.
- NGOs and faith based institutions- NGOs have been among the first responders to the refugee crisis around the world.
- Private Sector Corporations- A growing number of companies have donated to refugee causes and can bring an innovative perspective to addressing refugee protection concerns.
- A host of legal, economic, educational, security, health experts can present holistic policy approaches that allow displaced people to learn, work, and thrive.
2. Develop frameworks and models for building sustainable “special economic zones” for refugees based on the recommendations of experts identified above.
3. Shape the Political Narrative by engaging the public. Present coalition findings on “special economic zones” and create forums for the public to respond. With this process, decision makers will demonstrate transparency, receive constructive feedback and identify additional strategic partners.