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When Filippo Grandi was sworn in as the new UN high commissioner for refugees this week, even his department’s chief spokesperson tweeted that he was embarking on “one of the most difficult jobs in the world”.
Grandi takes the reins amid record human displacement and turmoil across the Middle East. In his first press conference, he stressed the urgency of protecting refugees and ending conflicts, such as Syria’s, that drive displacement. But he also called for more support for Syria’s neighbours. Four of these — Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — together host almost 4.5 million refugees. Grandi cited Lebanon as one example of a host country “desperately looking for solutions”.
As debate rages about the shape of these solutions, an op-ed by two academics at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom has attracted attention. They propose a strategy that could benefit both refugees and host countries: special economic zones (SEZs) designed to drive industry and technological development. The countries could benefit by tailoring the zones to boost the industries they most need, while drawing on a Syrian workforce skilled in fields from manufacturing to engineering; and refugees, for whom employment is currently highly restricted, would get to earn a proper living.
To find out more, I rang Alexander Betts, director of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre, who’s been working on this idea with economist Paul Collier. “The challenge is: how do we enable refugees not to be perceived as a burden, but as a benefit and an opportunity for the host country?” he says. Almost all of Syria’s neighbours have high youth unemployment rates and limited public funds, so relaxing labour laws for refugees is a hard sell.
SEZs could be a route out of this quagmire. Over the past few decades, Jordan has set up several such state-backed zones: business parks that offer incentives such as tax breaks and trade concessions to attract firms. In Betts and Colliers’ vision, refugees would be allowed to work for SEZ businesses alongside local people, and the growth of industry would generate further jobs.
They hope the idea will be piloted in Jordan, where an existing but underused industrial zone lies 15 kilometres from the country’s Zaatari refugee camp, home to around 80,000 Syrians. Betts says the government has invested 100 million dinars (US$140 million) in the King Hussein Bin Talal Development Area so it requires little fresh funding or infrastructure, but it lacks businesses and workers: currently it’s running at just a tenth of capacity.
“It seems a crazy thing to have a space with economic opportunities so close to where there are refugees with so few economic opportunities,” he says.
By employing Syrians in the zones, Jordan could give its manufacturing sector a much-needed lift. So far, this goal has been partly thwarted by Jordanians tending to aspire to service rather than manufacturing jobs. In contrast, Syria’s economy traditionally had a deeper manufacturing base, Betts says.Jordan could also use the zones to attract green technology firms that could help the desert country achieve its aim of improving water management. Finally, the zones could provide training opportunities for young Syrians whose education has been disrupted by the war.
Not everyone is a fan of SEZs: critics say some projects fail to get started due to poor infrastructure or red tape, or can remain isolated pockets within a country’s economy.
But Betts is upbeat. “It is not the perfect solution; it is a pragmatic step,” he says. He hopes the pilot will begin this year: the World Bank and United Kingdom’s Department for International Development have visited the proposed site, and the Jordanian government has shown interest. If successful, the idea could be rolled out to countries such as Lebanon and Turkey, and then further afield, with each SEZ tailored to meet specific needs.
Shyamantha Asokan is a journalist and photographer based in the United Kingdom, where she covers migration and diasporas. She has previously worked as a correspondent in India, Nigeria and the United States. Contact her on @shyamantha