“A good refugee policy has to be a good host community policy”


Prof. Alexander Betts on his new study on Syrian refugees in Europe and the political consequences that their exclusion from the labour market might have.

Syrian refugees in Europe
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“People get stuck in camps and urban areas for decades”

We met Betts during the Falling Wall Conference in Berlin, where he presented his new study on Syrian refugees and talked about the political consequences the so-called refugee crisis in Germany had. Moreover, Betts also came up with an advice for the migration policy of the future German government.


What solutions do you see to the so-called refugee crisis – especially in the light of an increased polarisation of European politics?

Alexander Betts: I think we need to be pragmatic. We cannot argue for an open-borders policy in Europe, it’s not going to be tangible or sustainable. The first thing to do is to recognize that the majority of the worlds refugees are not in Europe – nearly 90 percent are in the developing regions of the world, and we need to primarily find solutions there.

To do that, we need a significant rethinking in our approach to refugee assistance. Not as just humanitarian aid to vulnerable people but as development aid that builds capacities of the refugees, of the hosted community, and creates incentives for those host governments to provide jobs, educational opportunities in a more sustainable set of outcomes.

“People get stuck in camps and urban areas for decades”

In countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan we need to focus on the Syrian challenge. It is in countries like Uganda and Kenya that between them host more refugees than the entire number of refugees that arrived in Europe in 2015. This is where we need to start.

But that is not enough. People get stuck in camps and urban areas for decades. We need to ensure there is a route out of the limbo for resettlement. But that resettlement should be prioritised based on needs that also work for the receiving countries. We can engage in matching so the refugees that were received in a country like Germany match employment needs there.

Keeping the door open, so that people come spontaneously – as Germany did in 2015 – should be a last resolve for a minority.

Which role do the European Union and the United Nations have to play here?

It is not only governments and international organizations; but also municipal authorities – local actors matter at all levels. We have done research for instance that shows how important mayors in these municipal authorities are. In Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan it is not just the capital cities that determine policies, it is progressive mayors in particular parts of the country. Also the private, the business sector and civil society have a huge role, especially refugee-led community-based organisations.

At the institutional level the European Union has really struggled, because the response of individual member states has been a small coalition of the willing. Germany and France now are working very closely, trying to manage the flows from the central Mediterranean and focusing on Libya. That focus differs from the one of the Visegrad-4-countries who are closing their borders at all costs and preventing movement through the Balkans and into Europe. Meanwhile countries like the UK and Denmark are adopting their own strategies.

In a divided Europe, it is difficult for the European Commission to come up with a viable strategy. It has spent most of its political capital in this area in September 2015, when Jean-Claude Juncker proposed the relocation scheme for 160.000 people in the European Union. The failure of that policy has left the Commission in a very weak position.

"The United Nations needs to show leadership. A UN refugee agency is crucial, but it needs to update its model and reform if it is to be relevant in contemporary politics."

The United Nations is trying to develop a process that develops two-level compounds: one on refugees, the other on migration. They are different processes: the refugee process is being led by the UN refugee agency UNHCR, the migration compact is a state-led process co-led by Mexico and Switzerland.

The challenge within the migration process is: it is the first time the UN system has really thought about migration governance while also holding a mandate for that. It is likely to be slow in terms of development. Also the UNHCR is a challenged organisation: It faces increasing non-compliance with the 1951 convention, funding cuts from Trumps USA as its biggest donor, and the thread of IOM – the International Organisation for Migration entering the UN space.

What are your findings especially with highly educated refugees?

My recently published study „Talent displaced. The economic lives of Syrian refugees in Europe“, is a small sample where we have looked at three countries. Even though it does not deliver representative data, it gives us real insights and it shows this extraordinary paradox of 38 percent having a university education and yet 82 percent being unemployed. Syrian refugees are highly educated relative to many other refugee populations for instance from Afghanistan or Sub-Saharan Africa.

We also see a real challenge in the fact that many of those who arrived were particularly professionals. They would have preferred to work in similar jobs like in Syria, but are denied to do so in the host countries. In some cases, because there is an unwillingness and inability to recognize their qualifications; other cases illustrate a lack of mobility across sectors for a variety of reasons. That means refugees that are highly-skilled have to downgrade to low-skilled work or at most move from a high-skilled category in Syria to an unemployed one in Europe.

“I think there needs to be a clear political narrative about what happened post 2015. And that needs to be: It was the right thing to do at that time.”

The other thing we observe is a significantly high level of entrepreneurship and self-employment in Syria, but very low ones in Europe. That might be because of the time gap – nearly all Syrians arrived after 2014. It takes time to start a business. Many Syrians have been entrepreneurs in Syria, but given that they cannot easily access capital or backing facilities here, there is a real challenge not just for employment but also for self-employment.

You mentioned that refugees could contribute in rebuilding their countries. How could that work?

One of the tragedies of Syrians not able to work in the neighbouring countries is that over time their skills and human capital are eroded. Leaving people in camps indefinitely without the right to work is not only an individual loss – it is a loss to the society. If we allow people to work and to access education in the neighbouring countries they can ultimately return with a greater capacity to contribute to and rebuild their countries of origin.

Let us think about post-conflict Syria. We are not very good in post-conflict reconstruction: state-building projects have been a massive failure over the last 20 years from Libya, to Iraq, to Afghanistan. But we will have an opportunity.

What was the best example of a country reacting to the so-called refugee crisis?

I think overall Germany is one of the best cases in Europe. Because Germany is investing in the generation and providing education, training and support into what is otherwise a rigid labour market. In an economy like the UK which is less regulated there is more opportunity in the informal economy or in the market economy.

What is your advice to the future German government in dealing with the situation?

A lot of the political debate that I have observed from a distance in Germany comes back to the interpretation of Angela Merkel’s Wir schaffen das!. A large part of the society is saying that this is morally courageous and the right thing to do. Another large part is rejecting that, saying it is a backlash, and fearing the consequences. I think there needs to be a clear political narrative about what happened post 2015. And to me the narrative needs to be that that was the right thing to do at that time.

But that this is not an approach that could work sustainably for the indefinite future. And that the challenge needs to be defined in a way to manage refugee movements and migration more sustainably in future in the region of origin through resettlement.

I think evidence from the past can be used to say that while German society may face a challenge now, over a generation there will be a return that maybe in some cases it takes to the second generation of refugee movements for the return to be realised. The way to achieve that though, relies upon a lot on what German already is doing in educational training – that is the right thing to do.

So labour markets should be deregulated?

Indeed, we need to ask if we can allow access, maybe even privileged access, to refugee and migrant populations to use the skills they have. There is a real risk that otherwise you end up with edification of people unable to enter the formal economy, reliable in the informal economy, or locked into a definite welfare.

One of my key messages to policy makers is: a good refugee policy has to be a good host community policy. If there are areas with large refugee and migrant populations, additional levels of state support have to go, investment has to be encouraged, industrial policy has to facilitate jobs. In the areas, frankly that where voting for the AfD in the last election in Eastern Germany, in towns with hollowed-out labour-intensive manufacturing, those are the areas where social and industrial policy has to make opportunities for the host community, but in a way that enables them to see the presence of refugees as an opportunity.

And how could the efficiency of global money flows going into border and refugee management be enhanced?

There is an irrational resource allocation that takes place at the moment. A lot of public policy in this area is driven by either the path dependency of past policy, ministry-specific interests, and existing budget minds.

A lot more needs to go into more sustainable development funding that supports jobs and education. Over time that can reduce the humanitarian budget. It is absurd that we warehouse people in camps for 10, 15, 20 years and provide them with food, clothing and shelter, when actually many of them want a job and autonomy and given that opportunity they could support themselves better.

Equally, I think the balance needs to be changed between the funding we put into asylum here in the global North and the funding we put into the existing majority of the refugees in the global South. The proportion of funding that goes to support refugees there is much lower per refugee, than the proportion we spend here. And that doesn’t mean we should be radically cutting the support we provide here, but it is an illustration of the inadequate investment we put into the host countries where most refugees are.

Agencies like the UN refugee agency are particularly good in managing humanitarian aid in camps or providing legal advice to governments that they increasingly ignore. We need UN agencies, but we also need a better business model and donor states need to hold these agencies to account and ensure their delivery in a kind of leadership that can serve donors and make tax payers money go further and be better used.

Alexander Betts is Leopold Muller Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs and a Fellow of Green-Templeton College at the University of Oxford. He received his MPhil (in Development Studies, with Distinction) and DPhil (in International Relations) from the University of Oxford.

Betts has worked for UNHCR and as a consultant to the Council of Europe, UNDP, UNICEF, IOM, and the Commonwealth Secretariat. His research focuses on the international politics of asylum, migration and humanitarianism with a geographical focus on Sub-Saharan Africa. He is author and editor of numerous books, as well of over 50 articles, book chapters and working papers and his work has appeared in a range of peer reviewed journals including Global Governance, Perspectives on Politics, Journal of Refugee Studies, International Journal of Refugee Law, and Refugee Survey Quarterly.