Make us your home page

Resettling Syrian refugees: an alternative plan

In the wake of the Paris attacks, a number of people, in France and elsewhere, are rethinking their stance on the resettlement of Syrian refugees. But the truth is that the attacks should change nothing. The large-scale resettlement of Syrian refugees in Europe was a bad idea before the Paris attacks, and it is a bad idea now.

First, let's acknowledge that while there may well be a handful of ISIS infiltrators among the Syrian refugees seeking asylum, the vast majority of them are fleeing Islamist violence, and they have no intention of waging war on their benefactors. But large-scale resettlement in Europe is a mistake because it will require an equally large-scale commitment of resources that European governments, and European voters, are unwilling to make.

Recently, one of the most articulate defenders of refugee resettlement, Daniel Byman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown, warned that "the true terrorism danger is that the refugees are not cared for or are welcomed briefly in a fit of sympathy and then scorned and repressed."

He's right. Even the most generous resettlement policy might feel repressive to, say, Syrians who believe that the West's doctrines of gender equality and sexual liberalism represent an affront to their religion.

Nor do European governments have the power to dictate how their citizens will react to Syrians on a human level. In much of northern Europe, it is common to hear European Muslims complain of the emotional coldness of their native-born non-Muslim neighbors, who never stop treating them as foreigners, no matter how hard they try to fit in. This subjective sense of exclusion does much to fuel resentment on the part of European Muslims, and understandably so.

Byman has also observed that Europe already has a large population of radicalized Muslims, and that there is a real risk that these radicalized Muslims "will transform the Syrian refugee community into a more violent one over time." To guard against this outcome, Byman argues that European governments must offer refugees comprehensive educational support and economic assistance.

What Byman doesn't really address is whether European voters will welcome this prospect, particularly in countries where the social safety net is already under strain. Sweden is making across-the-board spending cuts to meet the cost of providing for the 190,000 refugees who've arrived in recent months, and other European countries are likely to follow. How many European voters are willing to pay higher taxes for the privilege of doing more for new arrivals from Syria and Iraq?

To be sure, Syrian refugees won't just be consumers of public services. Eventually, some of them will enter the workforce. It is worth noting, however, that youth unemployment rates across Europe are high, and workers with low levels of literacy face particularly grim economic prospects. One can easily imagine that many Syrian refugees and their descendants will become part of a permanent economic underclass, much like an earlier wave of Muslim migrants who fled turmoil in Algeria.

There is an alternative to large-scale refugee resettlement in Europe. In "Help Refugees Help Themselves," an essay in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Alexander Betts and Paul Collier offer a plan that would resettle Syrian refugees closer to home.

While hundreds of thousands of Syrians have sought refuge in Europe, millions have instead made their way to Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Many have found themselves in refugee camps. Betts and Collier offer a more sustainable solution: Instead of herding refugees into camps where they are forced to subsist on aid, they call for the creation of special economic zones. Essentially, a consortium of Western countries would create financial incentives and trade concessions to spur industrial development in these zones, which would employ refugees and, in some number, citizens of the host country.

The Jordanian government has already established a number of industrial zones, one of which, King Hussein Bin Talal Development Area, is just 10 miles away from the sprawling Zaatari refugee camp. With its current infrastructure, KHBTDA can accommodate as many as 100,000 workers, but it currently employs only 10,000.

If KHBTDA were reinvented as a special economic zone for Syrian refugees, Betts and Collier report that it could employ every worker in the Zaatari camp. With the help of the international community, KHBTDA could become a hub for labor-intensive manufacturing and other kinds of productive economic activity. Ultimately, skills learned and firms established in these economic zones could be brought back to Syria once peace is re-established there.

The beauty of Betts and Collier's approach is that it provides Syrians with a measure of economic self-sufficiency and cultural autonomy in exile, and it sidesteps the challenges of integration by giving them their own space in which to flourish. Making such industrial zones viable would require major investments not just from the host countries but from the European Union, the U.S., and rich democracies around the world.

Yet the costs of getting it off the ground would be a small fraction of the costs of successfully integrating refugee families into European societies that are ambivalent about welcoming them into their societies and economies.

— Reihan Salam is the executive editor of National Review. He wrote this column for

Resettling Syrian refugees: an alternative plan 11/17/15 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 17, 2015 3:33pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours