The current Refugee Crisis has been going on for a number of years, but the focus of the media has largely shifted to other things. Whether it’s Brexit, the US Presidential election, or the latest terrorist attack, the plight of refugees is deemed much less interesting than these other stories, even though the problem has not been solved. This intransigence got me thinking about what could be done, and there are two things that I thought of on the subject of resettlement: the numbers of refugees taken in by developed countries; and the location of refugee camps. This article will look at the situation of Syrian refugees but the principles could be universalised.
The BBC recently did a local news story about the Isle of Bute. Bute is a largely rural area of Scotland that is about as far from Syria as you could find. The population is around 6,500, and the island itself is only 47 square miles in area. The news story was about how this small island community has just taken in 15 Syrian families and the local people’s overwhelmingly positive response. This response included local businesses providing work experience to help them learn English and put down roots in the community. Another example was that the local parish priest lends this group of refugees the local church hall so they can pray in peace. This island had no social infrastructure to deal with these refugees, but they were accommodated and welcomed into this rural Scottish community.
This response from Bute shows that there are places around the UK who are more than willing to welcome refugees, and the government’s current figure of 4,000 per year is shamefully low. The arguments used by people who oppose refugees from entering the UK are all terrible. Bute, as an example, doesn’t have a mosque or even a source of Halal food on the island but the local council still offered their community as a refuge.
Opponents of welcoming refugees make a big deal about the financial cost of bringing these in people, but that also makes no sense. The UK, and Scotland especially, has an ageing population and in order to support older people the country needs to widen its tax base. Taking in refugees, almost all of whom are of working age, would be fiscally sound as well as compassionate.
This isn’t a criticism squarely levelled at the British government. The US, Australia, Saudi Arabia and countless other countries could be doing much more to resettle the refugees pouring out of Syria. To hammer this point home, take the US state of Alaska. Alaska is the most sparsely populated US state, with around 1.3 people per square mile. Alaska is by far the largest US state but has the third lowest population of any state in the union. If Alaska took in enough refugees to match the state’s population with North Dakota, the fourth least populous state, the Last Frontier State would take in around 18,000 refugees.
Obviously this would not be a problem geographically, but would it be problem in terms of population? Sometimes mass migrations of people make the local people feel swamped and give rise to xenophobic or racist attitudes. If Alaska took in 18,000 refugees, it is the equivalent of adding around 2.5% of the state’s population. It would depend how these people were distributed, but if they were put into communities around the state, I don’t see how people could think the state would be transformed. Again, I’m not trying to shame Alaska into doing more because I could have used any other state in the Union, but when it comes to helping people in need excuses like ‘we don’t have any room’ need to be quickly rejected.
The other aspect of this problem is about the location of refugee camps. There are refugee camps in the countries immediately bordering Syria, namely in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. My question is simple: is there any logical reason why these camps have to be in these countries? I’m not saying there should be no camps in these countries, because if Syrians want to return home it helps if they aren’t too far away, but there could easily be camps in safer places.
For example, Jordan is a largely safe country but the government has called for help on countless occasions. Why could a refugee camp not be set up in Australia, New Zealand, Canada etc.? There is more than enough room for these people to be taken out of harm’s way. I’m not even talking about permanently resettling them in these countries, so xenophobes need not worry. What I am suggesting is people who have been vetted by the UN and express no desire to return to their homeland be moved out of countries bordering Syria so they can be processed in camps that aren’t struggling with poor sanitation.
A refugee camp full of prefabricated housing with running water and basic services doesn’t take a particularly long time. For instance the al-Azraq refugee camp in Jordan was a flat piece of land in early 2013, but by April 2014 it had accommodation for over 50,000. If two such similar projects were attempted in three countries geographically distant from Syria, in around a year there would be temporary accommodation for over 300,000 people. This would alleviate the strain on Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, and would also help people that are currently in substandard housing. For people who are not looking to return to Syria, remaining in a bordering country is not necessary. These people could easily be processed anywhere in the world, and if that means that they have to get on a plane I don’t think they’ll mind.
As with many issues in politics there is no silver bullet that can solve the problem, but the two things I have outlined would help significantly. If countries with large populations and vast empty spaces opened their hearts to these people a huge part of the Refugee Crisis would be solved. If countries like the UK, Australia, and the US took in more refugees people’s lives would be transformed. Further, building refugee camps around the world would disperse the numbers of refugees in Middle Eastern camps, and would allow for more refugees to be taken in. The absence of media coverage doesn’t mean that problems go away, and unfortunately the international response to the plight of these people has been embarrassingly poor. There is still time to change tact, but if the lukewarm response of the international community continues history will not be kind