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ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA—If developing and developed countries recognize and allow refugees to be economically active in host societies, these steps may help solve a “broken” refugee system, says an Oxford University academic.

Dr. Alexander Betts of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre told attendees at a public lecture here that this kind of recognition unto refugees’ economic potentials will possibly create a “sustainable refugee system fit for purpose in the 21st century.”

Betts’ view, said at an event by the University of Adelaide’s Hugo Centre for Migration and Population Research, comes as European countries continue to struggle accommodating droves of Syrian refugees fleeing civil conflict and extremism back home. In the United States, President Donald Trump had slashed the maximum number of refugee entrees to only 45,000 in 2018 (from an average of 96,000 since 1980) —said to be the US’ most restrictive number in 70 years. (The US is a renowned world leader in refugee resettlement.)


Rodrigo Duterte



Myanmar and its Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi continue to receive flak over how the country is reportedly “brutally cracking down” some 370,000 Rohingya refugees. Australia was previously criticized by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture for “violating” the rights of asylum seekers to be from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment —all dismissed by former Prime Minister Anthony “Tony” Abbott. Australia has offshore arrangements with Papua New Guinea and Nauru to continually hold some 2,200 refugees and asylum seekers.

Citing findings from the RSC’s survey of South Sudanese and Somali refugees in Uganda, Betts finds that refugees aren’t economically isolated. A fifth of refugees surveyed own a business and 40 percent of these businesses’ employers are Ugandans. Refugees there have some 200 “distinct livelihood activities” run even by skilled professionals. And only less than a percent of refugees surveyed had no formal income-generating activity.

Uganda, over the past year, had taken in 1.3 million people (or 2,000 people a day fleeing famine, drought and violence), which was more than what any European country accommodated in the 2016 refugee crisis in Europe. While Betts documents his centre’s findings (including Uganda allowing refugees the right to work), concerns rise about lack of food and clean water in refugee camps.

The findings in Uganda “show what’s possible when refugees are given those opportunities,” Betts said.

Meanwhile, amid stricter regulations in Kenya for refugees, they are still able to work in Kenya’s formal economy in some refugee camps (Somalis and South Sudanese are the top refugee groups in Kenya). Though, refugees are not allowed to work in other refugee camps like in Dadaab in north-eastern Kenya.

Betts and his team found that refugees in the camp at Kakuma rely more on community leaders, families in the camp and on neighbors than on social services from international organizations and non-government organizations. And as these refugees try to be economically active, RSC’s survey found that most of the “barriers” they face are related to business and market dynamics (supply and demand for goods), not their daily life struggles in refugee camps.

Betts batted for the creation of enabling environments in refugees’ host countries, similar to what economic migrants wanting to be entrepreneurial look for when wanting to settle or work abroad. These are occupation, infrastructure development, access to capital, technological connectivity, and education.

“Though, some (country) contexts are politically more challenging than others,” Betts said, illustrating the contrasts in Uganda and Kenya as examples.

Betts also batted the fusion of refugees in countries’ special economic zones, notably in countries with strong manufacturing sectors. He cited the example of Malaysia’s SEZs welcoming some 200,000 Rohingya refugees.

Oxford worked with a refugee destination country, Jordan, and piloted what is called the “Jordan Compact” that allowed Syrian refugees to work in Jordan’s manufacturing companies found in SEZs. Jordan was willing to grant 200,000 work permits to Syrian refugees spanning three-to-five years. In return, multilateral organizations gave Jordan some concessionary loans and some tariff exemptions —provided locals and Syrian refugees are employed in firms, products are exported to Europe, and that European manufacturers are allowed entry into Jordan.

But Betts calls this a “pilot project” since there are “mixed results:” 51,000 Syrian refugees had work permits (only 2,000 of them are women), and a few multinational investments invested in Jordan given that the country “may not be the logical place for manufacturing” compared to, say, Southeast Asian countries.

The Jordan Compact is an “innovative pilot where lessons can be learned in spite of the most strict regulatory environments. Refugees have access to work, labor rights and (forms of) labor protection while helping rebuild post-conflict Syria,” says Betts.

Such approach in Jordan finds similarity in what Australia is doing to refugees. Companies like Westpac and ANZ Bank, technology firm Telstra and retailer Woolworths have accommodated refugees as interns then as employees. An Australian business consultant, Gary Brown, had prodded some manufacturers in the country’s meat industry to hire refugees and set up refugee employment programs at meat manufacturing firms.

That scheme is a “win-win-win-win,” Brown says at an August consultation here on economically engaging migrants and refugees by the Settlement Council of Australia (SCOA). Betts labels these programs in Australia as “social innovations.”

Global data show that 84 percent of the world’s over-19 million refugees are in developing countries; that only ten countries —all developing countries— host 60 percent of all refugees; and 55 percent of refugees are from Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan.

Betts also called on countries to rethink their refugee systems that is a combination of rescue, autonomy (where refugees’ economic potentials can take place), and “route out of limbo” through re-imagining resettlement policies and visa systems for refugees.

“Even with rescue and autonomy, it is surely not reasonable for refugees to remain in limbo for more than five years,” Betts said.

Betts was in Adelaide as the “Hugo Lecturer,” named after the deceased South Australian demographer and migration expert Dr. Graeme Hugo of the University of Adelaide.

“There (may be) alternative ways to manage these movements sustainably to benefit refugees and host countries, Betts said. “It will start by helping people help themselves.”




Jeremaiah Opiniano is assistant professor of journalism at the University of Santo Tomas and a doctoral student (taking up geography) at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

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