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Helping Refugees Where They Are

Photo by THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Syrian refugees are seen at the Zaatari camp which shelters some 80,000 Syrian refugees on the Jordanian border with war-ravaged Syria on March 28, 2017.

The impact of the unprecedented global refugee crisis on western countries has been profound, straining humanitarian aid budgets, threatening to dismantle Europe’s hard-won open borders, and helping the rise of nationalist populists like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen. But the vast majority of the burden has fallen not on America and its European allies, but rather on nearby lower and middle-income countries.

A new report from the International Rescue Committee and the Center for Global Development, looking at practical long-term solutions to address the global crisis, argues that it’s in these countries where efforts should be focused. This certainly makes a lot of sense, but putting the report’s ideas into practice will be extremely difficult for both rich and poor governments.

Eighty-eight percent of the world’s 21 million refugees are hosted in low- and middle-income countries. This is mostly a function of geography—the refugee crisis is driven by conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and a handful of other countries, and the countries that border those conflicts end up hosting most of the refugees. It’s usually only after refugees are no longer able to support themselves in these countries, that they venture further afield. Many of the refugees I met in Iraqi Kurdistan last summer initially tried to find work in the relatively stable region, but finding none, some said they were planning on either going back to Syria or trying to get to Europe, both dangerous and uncertain options.

It wasn’t until about three years after the start of the Syrian civil war that Europe started seeing large increases in the number of Syrian refugees “Three years into it you’ve burned through your savings, you’re not allowed to work, you have trouble putting your kids in school. So you move on to where you think you have a better chance at rebuilding your life,” says Nazanin Ash of IRC, one of the authors of the report.

The problem is that economic opportunities are often hard to come by for the permanent populations of the countries near conflict, and locals can be resentful of aid or special privileges given to refugees. In one example, residents of the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya—the world’s largest—often have better access to healthcare, education, and water than locals. At least some Kenyans have fraudulently registered as Somali refugees to gain access to these services. The question, then, is how to improve conditions for refugees in ways that also improve conditions for locals.

The report sees hopeful signs in refugee compacts, agreements that bring together host governments and donors and require long-term mutual commitments from both sides. Under a compact in Jordan signed in 2016, the EU agreed to provide improved access to European markets for Jordanian goods in return for Jordan bringing 200,000 refugees into the labor market in special economic zones. In Lebanon, the World Bank reached an agreement to tie funding to the country expanding education access for both Lebanese and Syrian refugee children. Under a compact in Ethiopia, donors agreed to fund two new industrial parks, where 30 percent of the workers will be refugees. In other words, initiatives to help refugees are easier to implement if they also help locals.

This spoonful of sugar approach makes sense, but it does require host countries to acknowledge that refugee populations are, in large part, there for the long term. That’s going to be a tough sell in places like Jordan, which has absorbed successive waves of refugees from nearby conflicts—Palestinian, Iraqi—or Lebanon, where a quarter of the population are now refugees and the prime minister recently warned that a “breaking point” for civil unrest is near.

“The reality is protracted displacement,” Ash said. “That’s a very difficult hurdle for countries to overcome, politically. If you had told me three years ago that Lebanon could withstand this influx of Syrian refugees, I would have said they couldn’t. But they have. So I recognize the need to be really sensitive about this question.”

Unfortunately, host countries will likely have to face this reality soon. “These are now populations that will likely never leave. It’s ultimately much better for all—host communities and refugees—if these populations are given legal status, allowed to work, allowed to send their kids to school. Pushing them to the margins presents risks for both refugee and host communities,” she says.

Given the prevailing political climate, ideas like these may also be a tough sell in wealthy countries, whose support is needed for plans like these to work. New factory jobs in Ethiopia are not going to make for a very effective campaign ad in Ohio. But mass global displacement, and the social instability that results from it, are not going away, and the handful of countries bearing the brunt of the crisis aren’t equipped to deal with it. Starting to address the problem is going to require commitment from wealthy governments. The current U.S. administration, unfortunately, has made barring refugees a signature policy, favors massive funding cuts to diplomacy and foreign aid, and takes a zero-sum purely transactional view of trade policy.

“The U.S. has been the global leader in humanitarian response,” notes Ash. “I fear a retreat from those commitments and what that means in terms of rollback from everyone else."

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ), a member of the GOP Tuesday Group, arrives at the office of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) at the U.S. Capitol March 23, 2017 in Washington, DC.