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The United States probably could accommodate President Obama’s 2016 goal of resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees—or even the request of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) of 22,000—without imposing undue security risks. But though it has been the subject of furious debate, the White House resettlement goal is just the tip of the iceberg. The 10,000 refugees that the U.S. will admit represent just 0.2 percent of the more than 4.2 million Syrians registered as refugees. And Syrian refugees are just part of the global refugee population. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees puts the global number of refugees at nearly 20 million—with another 1.8 million seeking refugee status. Any feasible plan for improving refugees’ prospects must involve changing the circumstances where they are now—often in camps in the countries closest to their homelands.

Refugee camps were designed to provide temporary food and shelter in so-called “second countries”—the countries in which refugees first arrive when fleeing their homeland. Ideally, camps represent a temporary stopover, sometimes on the way back to a newly safe homeland and sometimes on the way to resettlement in a “third country” that agrees to resettle refugees permanently. Stays in refugee camps, however, are rarely temporary. Since less than 1 percent of refugees are resettled in third countries, refugees can end up in camps for decades. This limbo is made worse by refugees’ lack of access to host countries’ formal-sector employment opportunities. With little hope of resettlement and or finding a job, a refugee’s only options may be informal employment, unlawful migration, or a return to conflict—and potentially radicalization.

UNHCR is aware of the problem. It would like to identify new ways to integrate refugees into second countries or resettle them in third countries. But, as recent experience suggests, the UN’s hopes for such durable solutions far outstrip the appetites of the countries that are expected to ante up. Reihan Salam has highlighted an alternative proposal from Oxford professors Alexander Betts and Paul Collier—an approach that would sidestep the issue of integration while providing formal-sector job access to refugees. Betts and Collier note that several of Jordan’s special economic zones (SEZs) are located in areas that now host camps for Syrian refugees. They focus in particular on the Zaatari refugee camp, noting that the King Hussein Bin Talal Development Area (KHBTDA) is located just ten miles from the nearly 85,000 Syrian refugees housed in the camp. Though the zone is well-connected to national road and power networks, it remains underutilized due to an insufficient pool of local labor and a correspondingly limited number of firms. KHBTDA currently employs 10,000 workers, just a tenth of its overall capacity. Betts and Collier note that the zone could absorb most or all of the would-be labor-market participants from Zaatari and still have substantial capacity to employ additional workers.

A survey of working Syrian refugees in Lebanon found that half were either skilled, having some higher education, or semi-skilled, having craft training. By removing the major constraint on the labor mobility of the Syrian refugees in Zaatari, Jordan would immediately deepen and diversify the pool of labor available to KHBTDA. Combined with the financial incentives, trade concessions, and streamlined approval processes that are typical of most SEZs, the deeper labor pool would make KHBTDA more attractive to the international firms—including displaced Syrian firms—that it was intended to attract. The firms’ arrival could in turn draw more Jordanian workers to the zone. In short, the zonal approach could turn Syrian refugees into job-creators, alleviating domestic concerns about “job-stealing” and helping Jordan to reach its national economic goals.

Betts and Collier are not alone in their belief that special-status settlements can put refugees to work while alleviating resettlement pressures. New York University economist Paul Romer has written about the opportunities that entirely new cities could present for refugees. Refugee Cities, a nonprofit comprised of attorneys and economists, is dedicated to exploring the zonal approach and identifying the global refugee camps to which it is best suited.

Over any useful timeline, the full integration of a large share of Syrian refugees into second countries like Jordan or third countries like the United States is a nonstarter. The zonal approach is a practical and politically realistic way to offer job opportunities to refugees—Syrian or otherwise. Doing so would enhance the economic prospects of the countries that are home to the world’s refugee camps while strengthening the post-conflict prospects of refugees and their homelands.


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