Thursday, October 31, 2019

How refugee cities can help prevent another migrant crisis

In 2015, 2016 and 2017, 2.5 million people entered Europe in an irregular manner. This chaotic situation enabled exploitation of refugees and vulnerable economic migrants, as well as terrorism, as some of the Brussels and Paris terrorists were able to travel back and forth from war zones to prepare their acts.

EU politicians have argued the situation was stabilized in March 2016 thanks to the EU-Turkey deal, but that is only half the truth. First and foremost, it was a decision by the Greek government to no longer allow those that had illegally travelled from Turkey from leaving Greek islands. Under the EU-Turkey deal, less than 3000 people were returned back to Turkey, in three years, so this could not have had much of an effect. The real reason that people no longer risked their life by trying to make the dangerous journey from Turkey was that they would be stuck on a Greek island.

As a result, drownings by undocumented migrants in the Aegean Sea plummeted by 85 percent in 2017 compared to 2016. A similar policy implemented in 2013 in Australia resulted in near-zero drownings, after at least thousand people had died at sea in the 13 years before.

Telling those arriving illegally to await the answer to their asylum request before they can continue their journey therefore has proven as the key for developed economies to prevent disorderly mass migration. However, it does not solve everything. For a start, there’s the major question mark what to do with those that are being denied asylum.

Both on Greek islands, where tens of thousands migrants are stuck in problematic conditions, including lengthy asylum procedures, as on the islands outside Australia where the country has arranged to welcome those trying to sneak in illegally, this is a major issue. Nevertheless, and despite a recent uptick in arrivals from Turkey, the numbers are still relatively modest, given that many without a chance to get asylum simply stopped trying to make it into the EU or Australia.

That’s completely different in Turkey, which currently hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Partly due to the deteriorated Turkish economy, public opinion has become more hostile to hosting them.

In response, Turkish President Erdogan once again threatened in October 2019 to flood Europe with refugees if the EU would dare to describe Turkey's military offensive in northeastern Syria as an “occupation”, stating: “If you try to label our current operation as an occupation, our job becomes easier, we will open the doors and send the 3.6 million refugees to you."

Erdogan’s idea is to rehouse up to 1 million of these refugees in a 30 kilometer wide buffer zone in Syria, where Turkey has tried to push out Kurdish-led forces, which the Turkish government regards as terrorists.

UN refugee agency UNHCR has stressed that any return of Syrian refugees to Syria should be done voluntarily while the International Rescue Committee, an NGO, has warned against evicting civilians currently living in northeast Syria, amid reports that at least 100.000 of those had to flee their homes as a result of Turkey’s offensive. This has now halted, following a ceasefire. It should be noted Kurdish forces do not seem completely innocent either. In 2015, Amnesty International accused them of having forcibly evicting Arabs and Turkmens from areas they took control of after driving out ISIS. 

UNHCR has been asked to study the Turkish proposal to resettle its own Syrian refugees there, but this would lead to a questionable outcome that people are resettled to an area they are not from while it wouldn’t be possible for those who had to flee this area to return to their homes.

At the heart of all this is that there simply is no sufficient democratic support in either Europe or Turkey to welcome all refugees, let alone all economic migrants. Most people would agree a solution should be found for them, but even the most welcoming would admit that allowing everyone in is not sustainable.

In history, there are precedents to square this circle. The United States are probably the most ambitious and most successful “refugee haven” ever created and on a smaller scale, there was British Hong Kong. This served as a safe haven for millions fleeing the murderous Maoist regime in China. Also Israel can be seen in this light.

In all three success stories, locals already lived in the area before, given rise to challenges. Together with many others, I've advocated the creation of "refugee cities", which effectively means replicating something like British Hong Kong today. To do that, some place where nobody lives would need to be found. That can’t be hard, given that only three percent of the world’s land surface is urbanised. The rise of Dubai and Shenzhen illustrates how it is practically possible for economic centers to emerge from virtually nothing. In other words: it’s possible to offer good economic prospects to those that can’t be welcomed elsewhere, provided the rule of law is safeguarded.

If the British were able to provide high levels of rule of law to millions of Chinese refugees back in the 1950s, surely the combined industrial nations of today should be able to replicate something similar.

The cost of helping to integrate the one million refugees Germany welcomed is already 23 billion euro per year. That doesn’t reflect the division disorderly migration flows can bring to societies, given how even third or fourth generation migrants have engaged in terrorism, rooted in problematic integration into society.

It should of course be fully voluntary for any refugee or economic migrant to go to a “refugee city” and it does not mean that the West should close its doors to refugees or economic migrants. It simply only offers a solution for those denied residency. Desperate military actions as the one undertaken by the Turkish government illustrate that in the future, what appears to be unrealistic at first sight may actually be very practical, in the light of the alternatives.

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