Resettling Syrian Refugees: An Alternative

Economic opportunity closer to home is better than a struggle to integrate abroad.

A Kurdish refugee mother and son from the Syrian town of Kobani walk beside their tent in a camp in the southeastern town of Suruc on the Turkish–Syrian border on Oct. 19, 2014 in Sanliurfa, Turkey.

Photo by Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images

In the wake of the Paris attacks, a number of people, in France and elsewhere, are rethinking their stance on the resettlement of Syrian refugees. But the truth is that the attacks should change nothing. The large-scale resettlement of Syrian refugees in Europe was a bad idea before the Paris attacks, and it is a bad idea now. First, let’s acknowledge that while there may well be a handful of ISIS infiltrators among the Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Europe, the vast majority of them are fleeing Islamist violence, and they have no intention of waging wars on their hosts and benefactors. To suggest otherwise is nonsense. The Islamic State has made no secret of its contempt for those Syrians and Iraqis who’ve fled its rule, and the Paris attacks haven’t changed that. The reason large-scale resettlement in Europe is a mistake is not that Syrian refugees are dangerous. Rather, it is a mistake because large-scale resettlement will require an equally large-scale commitment of resources that European governments, and European voters, are unwilling to make.

This is not to suggest that there are no circumstances under which Syrian refugees might at some point represent a security threat. Recently, one of the most articulate defenders of refugee resettlement, Daniel Byman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown and a regular contributor at Slate, warned that “the true terrorism danger is that the refugees are not cared for or are welcomed briefly in a fit of sympathy and then scorned and repressed.” He’s right. The trouble is that Syrian refugees are not a monolithic bloc, and even the most generous resettlement policy might feel repressive to, say, Syrians who believe that the doctrines of gender equality and sexual liberalism represent an affront to their religion. Policymakers don’t have the power to decide how their actions will be interpreted. Nor do they have the power to dictate how ordinary Europeans will react to Syrians on a human level. In much of northern Europe, it is common to hear European Muslims complain of the emotional coldness of their native-born non-Muslim neighbors, who never stop treating them as foreigners, no matter how hard they try to fit in. This subjective sense of exclusion does much to fuel resentment on the part of European Muslims, and understandably so. It’s not clear what policymakers can do about these failures of integration at the intimate level.

Elsewhere, Byman has elaborated on the policy dimension of integrating Syrian refugees, observing that Europe already has a large population of radicalized Muslims, and that there is a real risk that these radicalized Muslims “will transform the Syrian refugee community into a more violent one over time.” To guard against this outcome, Byman makes a convincing case that European governments must offer refugees “a comprehensive and long-term package that includes political rights, educational support, and economic assistance as well as immediate humanitarian aid, particularly if they are admitted in large numbers.” What Byman doesn’t really address is whether European voters will welcome this prospect, particularly in countries where the social safety net is already under intense strain. Sweden is making across-the-board spending cuts to meet the cost of providing for the roughly 190,000 refugees from Syria, Iraq, and other countries who’ve arrived in recent months, and other European countries are likely to follow. How many European voters are willing to pay substantially higher taxes for the privilege of doing more for new arrivals from Syria and Iraq? How many will be willing in the wake of the Paris attacks?

To be sure, Syrian refugees won’t just be consumers of public services. Eventually, at least some of them will enter the workforce. It is worth noting, however, that youth unemployment rates across Europe are frighteningly high, and workers with low levels of literacy and numeracy face particularly grim economic prospects. One can easily imagine that many Syrian refugees and their descendants will become part of a permanent economic underclass, much like an earlier wave of Muslim migrants who fled political turmoil in Algeria.

There are certainly Europeans who believe that it is the duty of affluent countries to absorb brutalized refugee populations, particularly among the more educated and better-off. Resettled refugees, however, tend to reside in lower-income neighborhoods, where employment opportunities are relatively limited, and where their neighbors are Europeans, including European Muslims, who may well see them as competitors for access to scarce social goods. Given the manifest failure of France, Belgium, and Germany to successfully integrate native-born Muslims into the cultural and economic mainstream of their societies, despite decades of fitful efforts to that end, what reason do we have to believe that these governments will succeed in 2015? Byman writes that if Syrian refugees are not successfully integrated into local communities, “they risk perpetuating, or even exacerbating, the tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Europe.” He’s right on this score, too.

There is an alternative to large-scale refugee resettlement in Europe, though it poses many practical challenges of its own. In “Help Refugees Help Themselves,” an essay in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Betts and Paul Collier offer a plan that would resettle Syrian refugees closer to home. While hundreds of thousands of Syrians have sought refuge in Europe, millions have instead made their way to Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Some have found themselves in refugee camps; others have settled in cities, where they work illegally and lead a marginal existence. Betts and Collier offer a more sustainable solution: Instead of herding refugees into camps where they are forced to subsist on aid, they call for the creation of special economic zones. Essentially, a consortium of countries, including all of the major Western economies, would create financial incentives and trade concessions to spur industrial development in these zones, which would employ refugees and, in some number, citizens of the host country. Betts and Collier note that the Jordanian government has already established a number of industrial zones, one of which, King Hussein Bin Talal Development Area in the eastern Mafraq Governorate, is just 10 miles away from the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp. With its current infrastructure, KHBTDA can accommodate as many as 100,000 workers, but it currently employs only 10,000. If KHBTDA were reinvented as a special economic zone for Syrian refugees, Betts and Collier report that it could employ every worker in the Zaatari camp and only reach half of its full capacity. With the help of the international community, KHBTDA could become a hub for labor-intensive manufacturing and other kinds of productive economic activity. Ultimately, skills learned and firms established in these new special economic zones could be brought back to Syria once peace is re-established there.

The beauty of Betts and Collier’s approach is that it provides Syrians with a measure of economic self-sufficiency and cultural autonomy in exile, and it sidesteps the challenges of integration by giving them their own space in which to flourish. Getting the Jordanians to agree to such a scheme may well be challenging. And making such industrial zones viable would require major investments not just from the host countries but from the European Union, the U.S., and rich democracies around the world, who would need to use aid dollars to convince the Jordanians to go along. Yet the costs of getting it off the ground would be a small fraction of the costs of successfully integrating refugee families into European societies that are at best ambivalent about welcoming them into their societies and economies.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Paris attacks.