By Jeetesh Maharjan
Refugees are a burden is a myth – at least in some cases. It is widely believed that refugees are usually a burden to host communities by depending heavily on host countries’ economy and stealing jobs from the locals. This is often heard in Western nations. This rhetoric has largely been responsible for a weak response from many Western countries when addressing the refugee crisis. But how much of this is true? Are refugees really a burden as people generalize them to be? The answer is No.
Before making my case, it is important to note that my argument does not try to prove that all the world’s refugees are aid independent however, it is important to understand that their dependence on outside support or aid is a “compulsion” not a “choice” and the difference between these words is paramount. Despite their circumstances, refugees are not always a burden. My argument aims to dismiss this over-generalization and to support the consensus that if refugees are provided opportunity, they will make the best of it and, in fact, give back to the host society they are living in. To refute the rhetoric, let us observe cases from two countries; Turkey and Uganda.
Turkey hosts the largest numbers of refugees in the world, more than 3 million refugees. And, if the rhetoric is to be believed then, the economy of Turkey should have collapsed by now. And if the rhetoric is true then how do we account for the fact that Syrian refugee-owned businesses are growing annually? Since 2011, the beginning of the civil war in Syria, more than 6000 Syrian owned or partnered businesses have been registered according to the report ‘Another Side to the Story: A market assessment of Syrian SME’s in Turkey’ prepared by Building Markets, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to reducing poverty by creating sustainable jobs. The same report claims that, including informal and unregistered businesses, there are more than 10,000 Syrian owned businesses and it is ever growing. Similarly, the report concludes that the investment made by Syrian refugees is substantial with an estimation of $1-1.5 billion (Another Side to the Story, 2017). How do we explain this growing number of entrepreneurs in Turkey? It is simple, not all refugees are uneducated; many of them are well educated and carry a variety of skill-sets that are being used to create jobs and provide jobs. Refugees work in their host communities either formally or informally. It is often perceived that, while working for lower wages, these refugees are stealing jobs from local people. However, this is not entirely true. Although, this might be so in some cases, in many cases, these are jobs that the locals are unwilling to do. By taking up these jobs, the refugees increase productivity and help the local economy to grow. Apart from these contributions by Syrian refugees in the labour market, there is a very basic fact that is proving to be important for the Turkish economy: refugees use the local market for basic consumption of foods, drinks, local services and so on. Contrary to popular belief refugees are contributing to the economy by working, creating jobs, paying taxes, investing capital and by general consumption in the local market.
Uganda is also hosting large numbers of refugees from its neighbouring nations. Uganda has been successful in integrating refugees to the local economy. Refugees can work, move freely and are allowed access to government services such as education and health. This has in fact helped refugees as well as Uganda. Refugees in Uganda live in three separate camps, but they are able to interact with host communities. According to research carried out by Alexander Betts and his team from the Refugee Studies department at Oxford University (Refugee economies: Rethinking Popular Assumption, 2014), many refugees have started their own businesses and about 21 percent of them employ non-family members; of which 40 percent are Ugandan nationals and the rest are refugees of various nationals. The research also found that Ugandans are major customers for 26 percent of refugee businesses. Similarly, refugees are reliant on the Ugandan market for supplies for their businesses and this is equally true for their personal consumption. It is safe to assume that as much as refugees depend on Ugandan market, the Ugandan market also depends on refugees. It shows that refugees are not only creating and providing jobs to many Ugandans, they are also interacting with Ugandans and the local market on regular basis and this is good for the local economy. Like Turkey, refugees in Uganda are benefiting from Uganda while also giving back to Uganda.
In both the cases, one thing is similar: Opportunity. Turkey has an open-door policy and has accepted a substantial number of refugees and Turkey has recently started a policy to allow work permits for Syrian refugees. Similarly, Uganda has accepted large numbers of refugees and has successfully integrated many of the refugees and provided opportunities for work, services and travelling. In both cases, these opportunities have been able to benefit the refugees and refugees have used these opportunities to make a good living for themselves. They have also given back and, in many cases, benefitted their local community. It is true there is a lot that needs to be done and improved, but both these cases provide a basis for increasing efforts to assimilate refugees and provide better opportunities for them.
The rhetoric that the refugees are a burden does not hold true in these two cases and one can presume that the rhetoric is nothing more than a myth. It is true that refugees are often a burden to local communities but, provided with opportunities, refugees can achieve much more for themselves and can also give back.