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The Cost of Fair Refugee Policies

Protecting Refugees in Nations Struggling With Poverty and Instability

Rich countries have a terrible record of policy intervention in the global South, exacerbating the vulnerability of the majority of the world’s refugees, says political economy professor Behzad Yaghmaian. He argues for a radical new approach to refugee protection.

Written by Behzad Yaghmaian Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Syrian refugees in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa valley after a fire in July 2017. AFP/HASSAN JARRAH

Sustainable refugee protection will remain a fantasy without substantial resettlement of refugees by wealthy nations in the global North.

Yet even with the most generous resettlement schemes imaginable, millions of refugees will still remain in countries of the global South, which currently host around 84 percent of the world’s refugees.

The low- and middle-income countries of the global South are diverse in language, customs and geography. Yet they share various degrees of political violence and instability, authoritarianism, lack of respect for human rights, child labor, high unemployment and poverty.

This poses a formidable challenge for refugee protection. The international community needs a radical change in priorities to support political and economic change in the global South that would provide better protection for refugees.

The record, however, is not promising.

Refugee protection requires political and social stability. But rich states’ political and military meddling in the global South has instead created new displacement and exacerbated insecurities facing the local population and the refugees.

The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example, unleashed a new wave of Iraqi refugees, who today number around 250,000, while increasing insecurity for other refugees in the region.

American drone attacks and the killing of non-combatants in Pakistan and Yemen have increased the political and social influence of radical Islamist forces, which creates further displacement and harms refugees trapped in these countries. The Taliban and al-Qaida, for example, have a long track record of trying to recruit vulnerable Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The rich countries of the global North have also damaged refugee protection through their economic relationships with countries in the global South.

In order to externalize border control, they have offered aid packages to corrupt, authoritarian leaders in the South as a payoff for warehousing refugees. In many cases, this aid has helped aggravate the insecurities facing the local population and refugees.

Signing the 2008 Friendship Pact with Libya, Italy paid Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi to keep sub-Saharan Africans from leaving the country for Europe. Intercepted at sea and returned to Libya, scores of migrants and refugees were imprisoned, tortured, sold to human smugglers or forcefully deported.

In 2003, Spain paid Morocco to prevent sub-Saharan Africans from leaving the country and entering the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta. Thousands lived in the woods or along railroad tracks near the border for years, while the media paid little attention to Morocco’s “Jungle.”

Meanwhile, the E.U.’s pledge to pay 6 billion euros in aid to Turkey last year as part of a deal to curb migration to Europe has only emboldened authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The loss of political and social freedoms hurt not only the Turks but also the refugee population. Having escaped war and violence at home, Syrian and Afghan refugees are now faced with an unpredictable life in a police state.

Economics of Refugee Protection in the Global South

Like anyone else, refugees need jobs – jobs that pay at least the minimum wage and afford them basic labor rights.

Many countries in the global South place restrictions on refugees’ right to work, although there are vast differences in the law and practice in different countries.

For example, Palestinians technically have the right to work in Lebanon (although they are barred from dozens of specific professions), but Syrians largely do not. Turkey provides work permits to some Syrians on certain conditions, but not to other refugees.

Pressure by the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) and other international organizations will be crucial in extending labor rights to refugees. For example, there is some evidence that continuing pressure and scrutiny by the International Labor Organization has had a positive effective in changing migrant-related labor laws in Qatar, at least on paper. Meanwhile UNHCR monitoring has helped to curtail child labor among the refugee population in a number of countries.

Legalizing work and labor market protection for refugees may face opposition from citizens in countries facing high unemployment rates, social exclusion and poverty among the local population. There will be little sympathy for refugees where many locals work without a contract and are paid below the minimum wage. International outcry about the exploitation of refugee children has little impact when locals’ children are also working. And where public services are cut because of international lenders’ demands for austerity, like in Greece, refugees are more likely to be regarded as a drain on badly needed resources.

Local opposition can, however, be tempered by promoting job-creating activities among communities that have significant numbers of refugees. For instance, helping refugees to set up small businesses through microfinance will not only improve the livelihood of refugees but also create jobs and income for the local community, as has happened in Turkey.

Cash Payments to Refugees

Too often, foreign aid and development assistance fill the coffers of corrupt states with minimal impact on the targeted population. Direct cash payments to refugees avoid this problem. They give refugees agency and dignity, while generating economic activity that benefits the larger society.

study of UNHCR’s direct cash payment program in Jordan showed increased day-to-day well-being, financial security, quality of life and other benefits for both refugees and host communities.

We now have the technology and the administrative structures in place to replace payment-in-kind aid with direct cash payments. The UNHCR began its direct cash payment program in 2007 in response the Iraqi refugee crisis and currently operates cash payments in 60 countries.

Direct cash aid is funded by private and public donors, and could be supplemented by money from the imposition of a Tobin tax on financial transactions. Eventually, the success of cash payments to refugees could provide an evidence base for the expansion of universal basic income, as a global poverty eradication scheme.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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