Choosing Inclusion over Exclusion for Refugees and Migrants

Closing the Gap – a series of Oxford University postgraduate student insights to the Skoll World Forum 2018

Emilie McDonnell, MPhil in Law at the Faculty of Law, reports on the Skoll World Forum session ‘Refugees and Migrants: Economic and Social Integration’.

In today’s increasingly harsh and divisive political climate, refugees and migrants are often portrayed by politicians as well as policy makers and sometimes even human rights advocates as a ‘burden’ for host states. This is accompanied by a reluctance to receive refugees and asylum seekers, with destination states in the Global North actively seeking to prevent such individuals from reaching their territory through visa regimes, carrier sanctions, offshore detention and pushbacks and pullbacks at sea and on land.

But what if the narrative moved away from this? What if refugees and migrants were viewed as being of great value to host states and their communities by providing cultural and social diversity, creating new jobs and businesses, and bringing a much-needed economic boost? Surely this would improve both the lives of refugees and migrants as well as the host communities themselves?

These questions were canvassed in yesterday’s panel discussion on Refugees and Migrants: Economic and Social Integration. The panel ‘walked the walk’ on the idea of inclusion, featuring two inspiring young leaders who are also refugees: Sana Mustafa, a Syrian refugee, and Salim Salamah, a Syrian Palestinian refugee, who are both Founding Members of the Network for Refugee Voices.

Susan Myers, Senior Vice President of the United Nations Foundation opened the panel, highlighting its focus on ‘personal experiences, local solutions and more effective policy making’, which in doing so, ‘will make a strong business case that migrants are to be invested in and partnered with’ and outline a model that ‘starts with the power of proximity that brings people together’.

Effective Social and Economic Integration

The presence of refugees and other migrants can be a win for host communities as well as the individuals themselves. Panellist Robert Annibale, Global Director of Inclusive Finance Citigroup Inc, encouraged us not to think of refugees as merely destitute, but as educated and skilled individuals full of potential.

Uganda is often cited as the role-model for refugee integration through an approach that upholds basic rights, including the right to work, to attend school and move freely within the country. Refugees are also given land for resettlement and cultivation and can participate in training on running a small business. As Kelly T Clements, Timothy Shoffner and Leah Zamore highlight, ‘Uganda has chosen inclusion over marginalisation’, which fosters self-reliance and resilience and empowers refugees to benefit their communities. The Ugandan approach also challenges the popular assumption that the presence of refugees takes jobs away from locals. A Refugee Studies Centre report referenced by panellist Premal Shah, Co-Founder and President of Kiva, shows that 40% of refugees who were employers created and provided work for Ugandan nationals. Another recent study reported the positive effects that refugee presence (albeit in camps) has on host community nutritional status in Turkana County, Kenya as a product of greater economic opportunities, including trade networks and increased access to food and goods.

States in the Global North, whose policies are instead designed to prevent refugees and migrants from ever reaching their territory, would be wise to consider such approaches and collaborate with schemes such as the Self-Reliance Initiative aimed at promoting opportunities for refugees to become self-reliant and achieve a better quality of life.

The ‘Good’ or ‘Deserving’ Refugee

Developing policies that exemplify the win-win situation for host communities is of course something to be embraced and a pragmatic necessity, being a key way to convince states to take in more refugees.

But we cannot focus solely on the economic dimension; we must also look at the issue from a political dimension that addresses the root causes of refugee crises, as expressed by both Premal Shah and Salim Salamah. Further, we must be careful not to view refugee protection as linked to a person’s ability to contribute to their place of refuge. Pursuant to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, a refugee is someone who:

‘owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion,             nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of her nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail herself of the protection of that country’.

It is on this basis that a person is declared a refugee. In relation to the ‘good’ refugee narrative, Sana Mustafa stated that ‘we need to humanise and not idealise refugees. Refugees are just another population full of all different kinds of people’. Whatever the approach taken, it must respect the dignity and voices of refugees, for there can be ‘Nothing about us, without us’.

In conclusion, shifting the narrative could go a long way in ensuring refugees and asylum seekers are not only afforded protection, but then welcomed and provided with the opportunity to be an empowered member of their new community.