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Opinion: Taking a different view

Eric CAMPOS
Managing Director
Grameen Crédit Agricole Foundation

South Sudan has been in civil war since 2013. The world’s youngest country is home to deadly chaos. Two million Sudanese have fled the country to stay alive, finding refuge in neighbouring countries. When considering the issue of refugees, it is important to remember that they are victims of war and not expatriates looking for a new job or seeking a new career direction. A refugee is a person who has left their country because they are justifiably afraid of being persecuted or killed and because their government has neither the power nor the desire to protect them.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR), also known as the UN Refugee Agency, publishes a detailed report on a yearly basis. According to the latest report, at 31 December 2015, 65 million people had been forced from their homes, 21 million of whom from their country. Fifty-four per cent of these refugees were from three warring countries, Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Of those 21 million people, 86% have found refuge, to a varying degree of stability, in a “developing” country.

At end-December 2015, 3.2 million asylum requests had been filed. Germany received the most requests, at 450,000, followed by the United States, with 172,000. France, with 74,000 requests, ranked ninth, behind Hungary.

That same year, one million human beings, including 250,000 children, risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean in search of safety and protection in Europe. Eighty per cent of them came from three at-war countries, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Some 7,700 of them died. The HCR’s “Global Trends 2015” report showed that instead of preparing to take in these refugees, who represent just a fraction of the men, women and children fleeing war and conflict, many EU leaders chose to erect fences along their borders to keep them out. These measures were accompanied by the introduction of a number of laws restricting the right to asylum and family reunification.

In addition to these moral and humanitarian issues, the impact on the economies of the host countries also merits serious analysis. Several years ago, cooperation agreements between countries and the HCR led to the introduction of effective integration mechanisms in Latin America. According to an article in Le Monde published on 13 January, the taking-in of 1.1 million refugees in 2015 and 2016 had an “impact similar to a recovery plan” on the German economy. German economic growth in 2016 was a half-point higher than the average over the ten previous years owing to the impact of the arrival of refugees.

These positive impacts concur with the conclusions of a 2014 study by the Humanitarian Innovation Project at Oxford University on popular assumptions and misconceptions about the ability of people who are just like ourselves but forced to leave their country to save their lives, and then adapt and integrate. The study, one of very few on the subject (available online at www.oxhip.org), focuses on the integration and value creation of this immigration by exploring five “myths”. The conclusions are as follows:

  1. Refugees easily integrate the host economy, as part of which they quickly return to their previous ways of life. This is true of farmers, tradespeople and teachers, among others. Refugees also join and contribute to export value chains in their fields of competence.
  2. Refugees contribute to the creation of economic value both locally and regionally, providing and creating employment. Twenty-five per cent of refugees are employed locally by employers from the host country. Fifteen per cent of refugees in rural areas create two jobs in addition to their own (including jobs for people from the host country) and 21% do so in urban areas. Eighty per cent of refugees purchase local goods from shopkeepers from the host country.
  3. The word “refugee” applies to a range of highly diverse sociotypes resembling those of the origin country. The study demonstrates that refugees export their know-how and skills, reinvesting them in the host country. Refugees tend, even on small scales, to recreate the economic environments of their origin countries, which no doubt contributes to structuring the host economies. 
  4. Refugees are generally competent in the use of technologies (such as mobile phones and the web). The study shows that 70% of refugees in rural areas and 96% in urban areas regularly use mobile phones and 51% of refugees in urban areas regularly use the web (compared with 11% in rural areas).
  5. Refugees do not remain passive and dependent on state aid (which is insufficient). Instead, they quickly develop strategies of mutual support and income diversification. The study demonstrates the emergence of mutual support communities favouring the economic success of their members. Some refugees set up businesses by seeking capital from informal financial services and invest in manufacturing equipment. In Uganda, refugee-run farming cooperatives have been created.

The example of Germany and the findings of this study shed new light on refugees, eclipsing the popular assumptions bandied about in recent times. Refugees are economic players who have been forced to leave their homeland but who have not lost – quite the contrary – their creative energy, skills and, undoubtedly in the future, their commitment to respond to the economic challenges in their host country. Refusing to see this potential, this economic “windfall”, is a mistake that our German neighbours have probably avoided.