Over the past four years, the Zaatari refugee camp along Jordan’s border with Syria has undergone a jarring transformation. What was once a desolate desert settlement has become a bustling, oddly vibrant city of 80,000. Virtually every one of its residents has suffered unimaginable loss and needs help from the international community, but they aren’t just waiting for it. In the forest of tents and prefabricated homes, barbers and teachers, fruit vendors and bakers—all Syrian refugees—are playing a role in their local economy.
It is a phenomenon we have witnessed before in working with people who’ve fled violent conflict in places such as Darfur, Lebanon, and Iraq. After losing everything, many displaced people have the resilience and resourcefulness to try again. And that begs a question: Why are these individuals, with their varied backgrounds and talents, so seldom viewed as an economic opportunity? It is a question addressed at two major meetings held this month during the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York: The UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants on September 19, followed the next day by the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees, hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama. The UN summit called for a crisis response that goes beyond humanitarian aid to embrace employment and education. Obama is seeking enhanced work rights for refugees amid other massive increases in refugee assistance.
No doubt, the strains refugees place on host countries today are enormous. Lebanon’s population of four million, for instance, has ballooned 25 percent with the arrival of fleeing Syrians. Refugee children comprise 50 percent of elementary school students there, and Lebanon’s unemployment rate has doubled since 2011. States bordering conflict zones need much more help from the international community in assisting the world’s 60 million refugees. The World Bank estimates that refugee-hosting countries, principally Lebanon and Jordan, require $5.8 billion this year just to fill infrastructure needs; from water to health facilities, the countries’ facilities can hardly bear the strain of a surging
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