The Japan NewsThe Syrian conflict that began in 2011 has uprooted about half of Syria’s prewar population of over 20 million people, with 6.1 million displaced within the country and 5.6 million living as refugees. The ongoing refugee crisis shows no signs of abating. With lingering concerns of donor fatigue, Prof. Alexander Betts of the University of Oxford has proposed a novel solution to the crisis: Rather than adopt a purely aid-based approach, Betts believes refugees should be allowed to join the labor markets of their host countries. He explained the importance of a new project in Jordan in a recent interview with The Japan News in Tokyo.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
The Japan News: What sort of viewpoint on refugee issues do many people tend to lack?
Betts: Refugees often represent a cross-section of their society. In any group of refugees, you will find doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs. You will also find people with very low levels of education. So, whether they can contribute depends in part on their own capacities, but also on the policies that are adopted to support them.
If refugees are left indefinitely in a camp for years without the right to work or freedom of movement, they will inevitably become a cost. But if refugees are allowed to work, given educational opportunities, then they can be a benefit to the host society [and] their own community, and they can contribute to post-conflict reconstruction when they go home.
A very significant proportion of Syria’s population is now outside of Syria. The future of Syria, when the conflict ends, will depend upon how we treat its population abroad. Syria will need its human capital, and if its population has been dependent on humanitarian aid, and not given educational opportunities and not given work, the returning population will struggle to build that society. How we treat people in exile will shape the future of their own economies and societies, and the sustainability of that rebuilding process.
Jordan hosts about 657,000 Syrian refugees, according to the UNHCR. Out of job competition and security concerns, host countries of large numbers of refugees often have restrictions on giving refugees the right to work, rendering refugees often dependent on humanitarian aid. Jordan had not been an exception. Since the Jordan Compact, an international aid agreement, was signed in February 2016, however, the country opened its labor market to Syrian refugees in return for receiving preferential trade terms from the EU and concessional loans.
Q: How do you evaluate the Jordan Compact, and what challenges does it face?
A: The huge success is [that] it has given Syrian refugees the legal right to work in Jordan, where it didn’t exist before. Over 70,000 Syrians have received work permits under the scheme. IKEA has invested in its supply chain; [the British subsidiary of] Walmart has invested in relocating some of its manufacturing base to the [special] economic zones [where Syrian refugees work alongside workers from the host country]. Other countries like Ethiopia and now Malaysia are trying to emulate it [with Somalian refugees in Ethiopia and refugees in Malaysia that are mainly from Myanmar].
The mixed record comes from the challenge of creating jobs and encouraging business to invest in a country that’s not an obvious global competitor in low-skilled manufacturing. [Jordan] lacks ports, it borders two countries which have collapsed economies because of conflicts — Syria and Iraq — and it is less competitive in manufacturing than many Southeast Asian countries or China.
Q: Do you think the Jordan Compact model can be applied in developed countries?
A: I think context matters. The way to do that depends upon the particular refugee community and the economy of the host society. So, manufacturing was a potential way to support Jordan’s national development plan. In an economy like Japan or Germany, it would be much more viable to support service-sector jobs than it is to support industrial jobs because that’s the state of the economy.
There’s also a challenge that advanced industrialized economies have integrating refugees that doesn’t apply in a country like Jordan — which is that if you consider Syrian refugees in Germany, they’re coming from a $2,000 GDP per capita economy in Syria, moving to a $40,000 a year GDP economy in Germany. So the productivity gap is enormous. That’s one of the reasons why in Europe, unemployment levels for Syrians are so high.
Refugees will often come from lower-productivity economies. There’ll need to be investment in education and training, and particularly support for the second generation to allow them to economically integrate. It’s in some ways economically easier to do in similar neighboring countries than it is in advanced industrial economies, at least at scale.
Q: How can businesses, including Japanese firms, engage in refugee empowerment?
A: I think Japanese companies and companies around the world have a huge contribution to make to refugees. One of the most important ways in which refugees can be supported is through work.
I’ve been hearing today about very pioneering work that Uniqlo [Co.] is doing, for instance, in trying to employ refugees in its retail stores here in Japan and across the wider region, and in encouraging its partner organizations in its factories across South Asia and Southeast Asia to employ refugees, and through vocational training opportunities. I find examples like that inspiring because it’s about economic empowerment.
I think there’s something where often refugees are seen by business as a corporate social responsibility issue or a sustainability issue, and that’s part of the contribution that businesses can and should make, but it has to also be about the core business, looking at what business can do to engage with refugees that can be a win-win for the business and for refugees. It can be about an opportunity in terms of labor, relocating supply chain and brand opportunities. There are many reasons for businesses to engage [in refugee issues.]
Q: The number of refugees is on the rise. What do you think the international community should do to deal with the situation?
A: We’ve got more refugees than at any time since the Second World War. I think it’s worth putting it in a degree of context, which is that, of the 65 million displaced, 22 million are refugees. So over two-thirds of the displaced number are internally displaced — they’re still in their country of origin — and 22 million people is about 0.3 percent of the world’s population. So, it’s still a very small proportion.
But it is going to be one of the big challenges of the 21st century, because there are two trends that are driving these types of movements. One is fragile states — about 50 percent of the world’s refugees come from just three fragile states: Syria, South Sudan and Afghanistan. And fragile states are fragile for different reasons, but the world is very bad at putting fragile states back together. People end up leaving those societies, and they leave for mixed reasons. That means that people will move, particularly from poor to rich countries.
The second big change is technology means there are increased opportunities for mobility and increased aspirations for mobility. People have smartphones, access to the internet, they aspire globally, there are travel opportunities that there have never been before, both legal and illegal. So, state fragility plus mobility is going to mean more people moving across borders in desperate, vulnerable positions as what I would call survival migrants, and the world has yet to develop a coherent response to what that will mean with this broader category of survival migrants.
— This interview was conducted by Japan News Staff Writer Yuka Kumakura.
Alexander Betts / University of Oxford Professor in Forced Migration and International Affairs
Betts, 38, received his MPhil in Development Studies and DPhil in International Relations from the University of Oxford. He has conducted research focusing on the international politics of refugees, migration and humanitarianism, with a geographical focus on sub-Saharan Africa. He served as the director of the Refugee Studies Center at the University of Oxford from 2014 to 2017 and currently works as the director of the Humanitarian Innovation Project at the university.Speech