Refugees Shouldn’t Be Bargaining Chips
By BEN RAWLENCE
TALGARTH, Wales — IN March, the European Union and Turkey struck a deal: Turkey would build camps to house refugees who were refused entry to Europe, and the European Union would pay for them — 3 billion euros (about $3.4 billion) in the first instance, with another 3 billion euros to follow. Other countries were watching closely, and we are now beginning to see the repercussions.
On May 3, the West African country of Niger demanded 1.1 billion euros (about $1.2 billion) from the European Union to stop migrants on their way to Libya and the Mediterranean. Then, last week, Kenya’s government announced that it planned to close the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab, citing Europe’s example of turning away Syrians to justify its plan to forcibly return nearly 600,000 Somali refugees to Somalia.
Karanja Kibicho, a senior Kenyan government official responsible for counterterrorism, declared — tellingly, in a British newspaper — “we can no longer allow our people to bear the brunt of the international community’s weakening obligations to the refugees.” He also noted “a falloff in the voluntary international funding for the camps in Kenya, in favor of raising budgets in the Northern Hemisphere to refugees headed to the West.”
Refugee camps are chronically underfunded. But Kenya’s proposal is not about the needs of the refugees — it is a demand for ransom. Kenya has threatened to close the camps twice already, citing security concerns following terrorist attacks on the Westgate mall in Nairobi in 2013 and Garissa University in 2015. In response, Secretary of State John Kerry promised $45 million in extra aid for Kenya — aid that is unlikely to go anywhere near the camps, which are entirely paid for by the United Nations.
Having cried wolf before, Kenya has had to work harder to gain international attention. To prove its seriousness, last week it disbanded its Department of Refugee Affairs and revoked prima facie refugee status for Somalis seeking asylum, which ensures that future arrivals will be undocumented and at immediate risk of deportation. Kenya has also relentlessly scapegoated refugees for terrorism, undeterred by the lack of any evidence linking the camps to attacks.
Against the backdrop of the Turkey deal, refugees are a good currency to hold: a hedge against foreign criticism, a liability for which to blame domestic problems, and a bargaining chip for special favors from abroad. In its vulgar attempt to buy itself out of its international obligations, the European Union has started a bidding war.
This is dangerous. Eighty percent of displaced people in the world are hosted in developing nations.
The world is moving toward a situation in which the rights of refugees are enumerated not in international laws and treaties but in dollars and euros. Earlier this month, the European Union agreed to a change to its common asylum policy that allowed member states to refuse to accept their quota of refugees resettled from front-line countries, like Greece and Italy, for a “solidarity contribution” of 250,000 euros (about $283,000) per head.
This is madness for many reasons, but most of all because in refusing to accept a refugee, a country is refusing to admit an employable human being who will, most economic studies show, make a positive contribution to economic growth in the long run. This was, partly, the basis of the German chancellor Angela Merkel’s argument for accepting such a large influx of asylum seekers into Germany in 2015.
Along similar lines, David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee and a former British foreign secretary, called on Saturday for a huge international effort to resettle in rich countries the most vulnerable refugees currently living in camps, and for the rest to be accepted as productive residents with the right to work in their host countries.
It is a sound idea. As Dadaab’s 400,000 residents have done, refugees build economies and communities whether you allow them to or not. Despite Kenya’s attempts to keep Dadaab temporary, forbidding permanent structures, roads, sanitation and power, the camp is a full-fledged city. Denying Dadaab’s permanence wastes international funds and forgoes tax revenues and refugee talent. The United Nations has paid to educate three generations of people who are forbidden to work.
The choice facing host nations is actually between informal and formal economies. With a little more vision, 25 years of humanitarian funding for Dadaab could have been spent on investing in a city and a population that could, eventually, employ refugees and Kenyans alike, contributing millions in taxes and providing a bridgehead into Somalia for peace and development.
Despite the obvious common sense of the Miliband approach, the gap between such a generous global vision and the harsh realities of a xenophobic politics from Nairobi to New Hampshire is wide. Dadaab has survived as an isolated slum precisely because Kenya does not want to swell the Somali vote by up to one million refugees, or 2 percent of Kenya’s population.
It seems that most countries would prefer to deport potential taxpayers and pay huge fines in order to deny themselves economic growth. The World Humanitarian Summit, a United Nations-sponsored conference that will be held later this month in Istanbul, is an opportunity to shift the global discussion about refugees toward the potential benefits for all. But I fear it will simply turn into an auction.