Jordan's Refugee Experiment

A New Model for Helping the Displaced

Syrian children decorate a wall at their school in Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp, March 2014.  Muhammad Hamed / REUTERS

The Syrian refugee crisis has attracted Western attention largely because of its modest spillover into Europe. But this spillover represents a mere fraction of the misery caused by mass displacement today: only around 15 percent of Syria’s 5.8 million refugees have attempted to reach Europe, and the Syrian refugee surge is itself only one of several around the world.

The challenge of mass displacement is largely one of geographical concentration: nearly 60 percent of the world’s refugees are hosted by just ten haven countries, each bordering a conflict zone. It is in these countries—Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, in the case of the Syrian civil war—where new approaches are most direly needed: policies that are sustainable and scalable and that allow displaced people to learn, work, and flourish until they are able to return to their homes and rebuild their societies. With European leaders focused on keeping Syrian refugees out of the continent, such policies have so far been lacking.

It is tempting to suggest that refugees become temporary citizens in host countries, with access to education, work, and other rights for the length of their stays. But with few exceptions, such as Uganda, host countries that neighbor conflicts are generally unwilling to open their labor markets to refugees, let alone integrate them socially or politically. In countries where this is the case, what kind of alternatives might be available?

By reducing the need to repeatedly mobilize for emergency responses, SEZs would help policymakers focus on providing higher-quality assistance.

In October, Foreign Affairs published our proposal for a new approach to the Syrian refugee crisis. By allowing displaced Syrians to work in special economic zones (SEZs) in Jordan, we argued, Amman could provide displaced Syrians with the jobs, education, and autonomy they need while advancing its own industrial development. We focused on the King Hussein Bin Talal Development Area (KHBTDA), an SEZ into which the Jordanian government has already invested more than 100 million dollars in infrastructure and which lies a short

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