When I was a refugee, I was lucky. While some of the families in our situation had money, my parents managed to get something far more valuable: US Green Cards. We could get out.
Over 40 million people today living in refugee camps are not so fortunate. They may be given a tent, enough food and basic medication, but they are not given documents that would give them the right to travel, or even to work. Forced to rely on aid, they are regarded as a burden. We need to start changing the way we think about refugees. Here’s how we can help:
1. See them as an untapped resource
Often we view refugees as a burden, but fail to tap their talents. My father, a walking encyclopaedia, was an old-school pharmacist when my family became refugees, trained to concoct medicines from their constituent chemicals. Had we been stuck in a camp, his many talents would have gone to waste. Think of those 40 million people living in enforced idleness, right now, perhaps for years or even decades. How many have brilliant minds? How much creativity and enterprise could they unleash, how much economic value could they create, if we let them? Imagine if George Soros had been stuck in a camp, what would this mean to the financial world? Although refugees are normally not allowed to work, they find ways; refugee camps typically have thriving informal economies. We should recognize this reality and strive towards inclusion.
2. Include them in society
I understand, of course, why many countries do not want refugees to work, or even grow crops – a large and sudden influx of people is bound to pose practical challenges for a host country. The hope is always that the situation which forced people to flee will soon calm down, and they will be able to return home; with land and work, they might not want to.
Sometimes, though, it almost seems that we’re blind to experience. We know that camps often become effectively permanent anyway. And there are countries – notably Uganda – which, to their immense credit, do immediately give refugees the documents they need to be included in society.
Not every country can do what Uganda does, but we could do more to find a middle ground that lets refugees create economic value, and lets their host country tax it. Why would we not explore every avenue to turn refugees from a drain on GDP into a boost for it? We need to be willing to think creatively about how sustainable business models can start to take the place of charitable hand-outs. Social businesses like Little Sun, which works with local distributors to sell affordable solar-powered LED lamps to refugees, are one example.
3. Get them online
The objections to refugees working – that it risks rooting them in a physical location or driving down wages in local communities – evaporate if the work they do is virtual. That’s beside the many other boons that solar-rechargeable devices and high-speed broadband bring to refugee camps. I have seen people in camps without internet anxiously scouring three-week-old newspapers for information about the civil war back home. Internet access in refugee camps would also make it easier to offer educational opportunities.
4. Ensure access to education
Days living in refugee camps are long; school tends to be rudimentary. Many of the kids are bright, and they are often stuck there for years. We could help them use that time to develop skills to start a business in the camp, or gain qualifications to apply for skilled jobs, and the precious visas that come with them. Access to education is only a start. Mentoring from a volunteer in the wider world can be incredibly helpful. And like any other budding entrepreneurs or students, refugees also need access to affordable micro-loans and other financial services.
5. Develop an exit strategy
Nobody wants to spend their life sitting and waiting for the world to change. What we should be giving refugees – what I was lucky to have, as a nine-year-old in Nicaragua – is a way out. My work now involves visiting refugee camps to find the most promising students, and persuading private donors, colleges and universities to offer them scholarships. In return, they commit to find some way of serving their region of origin in their subsequent working life.
Imagine being a teenager studying at Princeton, knowing that your family is sleeping in a tent half a world away. That takes character – and, thankfully, some employers recognize this. Mastercard recently offered jobs to our entire graduating class in Dubai this year. Anyone who can succeed against such odds, they figured, must be worth giving a chance.
Image: A Sudanese girl is embraced by her sister at Abushouk camp REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly