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How to solve our broken refugee resettlement system?

Tuesday, 30 January 2018 15:00 GMT

A Rohingya refugee stands next to a pond in the early morning at the Balukhali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh December 26, 2017. REUTERS/Marko Djurica TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Creative thinking and pilot testing of new policy approaches are urgently needed to compensate for insufficient global resettlement efforts

The global refugee emergency continues to grow, at a time when government-sponsored support faces increasing political reticence worldwide.

While illegal migration to Europe is dropping, the human cost can be counted in the growing number of human rights violations and migration-related fatalities, especially at sea.

Lacking a cohesive EU migration policy, the European Union Relocation Programme has failed, suggesting that solidarity measures in such a sensitive policy area might never be endorsed by most member states.

Outside of Europe, resettlement pledges and funding continue to fall behind the set targets. In the United States, in particular, President Trump has cut refugee admissions for fiscal year 2018 by more than half. And a number of other large and wealthy countries continue to defer any form of contribution to the global resettlement efforts.

The system is broken, and people are dying because of it.

The time might have come to envision a slightly more ambitious approach to current refugee challenges. One of them might consist of establishing special zones for displaced people. We do not mean dumping refugees on an island and air-dropping supplies now and then. We think it is possible to create areas where resettled refugees can integrate, earn income, pay taxes, and live with dignity until it is safe to go home again.

We would like to see areas within nations connected to legal migration channels that offer relaxed employment regulations and a positive environment that includes a range of basic facilities such as decent housing, healthcare and access to education.

Host nations would offer incentives to attract and support businesses opting to move into the special zones, and tax breaks to businesses that hire migrants. This would follow the model of the EU trade concessions and would grant special status to businesses employing refugees.

Access to legal work keeps people out of poverty, and often criminality. As micro businesses spring up, taking advantage of regulations that incentivize innovation and investment, the special zones may naturally develop economic independence.

While subject largely to the host states' governing laws, the special zones should be granted a distinctive status, i.e. that of a free economic zone at a minimum, and possibly some degree of extra-territoriality. This would include, in particular, the right for refugees to work, irrespective of the existing legislation in the host state.

Other than these exceptions, the legal status and prerogatives of refugees resettled in the special zones should not differ from those applying in the host countries. This would be essential in order to avoid creating a two-tier international refugee regime and stirring tension within refugee communities themselves.

Since 2015, a number of proposals for the establishment of refugee “nations”, “islands” or “cities” have been envisioned by prominent businessmen like Jason Buz and Naguib Sawiris, and by Dutch architect Theo Deutinger. Established academics like Robin Cohen, Paul Collier and Nicholas Van Hear have also published detailed analyses of how such schemes might be designed and implemented.

In a nutshell, and leaving aside their different variations, all of these proposals have advocated the establishment of a separate territorial community, usually on an island, where refugees would be resettled and enjoy a range of benefits and rights that existing legislation in most host countries does not currently afford to them.

Although none of these proposals has been examined formally by any government or in any inter-governmental forum, to date they appear to have been met largely with scepticism if not severe criticism. This might be due to a number of reasons including the fact that most of these proposals have set out to focus almost exclusively on the refugee population, thus creating potentially negative connotations and an overall moral malaise due to recent historical events.

However, none of these reasons can justify renouncing such proposals by and for themselves. There is still ample room for expansion and refinement, incorporating the range of considerations and implications that such an initiative would entail, and the range of prerequisites that it would need to satisfy in order to achieve wide acceptance by all the key players concerned.

In particular, the stipulation that the proposed special zones should not target resettled refugees exclusively, but should also accommodate a range of innovative economic and social experiments, is critically relevant and would help alleviate some of the resistance or misconstructions that past proposals in this area have encountered.

There would be many variants and options for the proposed scheme, which are outlined in a separate concept paper prepared by the authors of this article, and which would need to be examined closely through an in-depth scoping study. However, creative thinking and the pilot testing of new policy approaches are now urgently needed in order to compensate for the insufficient global resettlement efforts and to reduce the often tragic consequences of current irregular migration patterns.

Solon Ardittis is Managing Director of Eurasylum and co-editor of “Migration Policy Practice”. @Eurasylum

Chris Catrambone is the founder of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS). @cpcatrambone  @moas_eu

The views expressed in this article belong solely to the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of their respective organisations.