A proposal for managing refugee crises

In recent decades, the number of people fleeing their homes and seeking refuge has risen to 27 million as risks of fragility, conflict, violence, climate change and famine have skyrocketed. It is expected to quadruple by 2050. A significant proportion of current migrants – and an even larger proportion of future climate refugees – will not return to their home countries. Previous waves of refugees, triggered by wars or failed states, have proven harsh on asylum seekers, costly to communities and politically divisive. Images from the Mória refugee camp or the imprisonment of small children are iconic in their depiction of the widely shared perception of the failure of current refugee reception practices. Doubts that existing refugee integration approaches could effectively cope with the influx of potentially large numbers of future migrants have prompted host country governments to consider alternative refugee policies. For example, the European Commission (2020) calls for a “new, permanent European framework…which can…create decent conditions for the men, women and children entering the EU… and allow Europeans to have confidence that migration is managed in an effective and humane way, in line with our values.” Could charter cities hold the key to developing such a narrative that would benefit refugees and host communities alike?

Charter cities are new urban developments that have been granted special jurisdiction to create their own systems of governance. Well-defined legal frameworks, good governance, efficient distribution of public goods, and modern infrastructure could support well-functioning markets and attract investment to generate higher rates of economic growth in charter cities. Based on these principles, we propose to found Sustainable Charter Cities in Exile (SCCEs) as a policy framework for host countries and international development organizations to promote refugee self-reliance and facilitate their integration. The proposal complements existing migration policies, particularly in areas with identified procedural and logistical bottlenecks, and supports refugees in their free choice of migration destination.

SCCEs aim to provide refugees with a safe place, an immediately available support network, and an expedited path to employment and income opportunities. A guarantor country or group of countries would enforce the SCCE charter while guaranteeing the safety of private sector investments and companies, including those from the country of origin with temporary headquarters in exile. An appropriate institutional architecture, guaranteed and overseen by national governments and international citizens, with the direct involvement of refugees and local communities, would help reduce the risks of crime, human rights violations and sexual exploitation.

The cities could be established in a state or province willing to release land for urban development and/or rehabilitate and reuse depopulated cities. The SCCEs could be located near major cities to take advantage of existing infrastructure, or near the border of the refugees’ country of origin as a transit hub for refugee flows. Tighter regulations, low taxes and accelerated and simplified tariffs, combined with efficient urban infrastructure, would foster a productive business environment that, together with (skilled) refugee workers, could boost economic growth in the SCCEs. Multinational companies could set up subsidiaries in SCCEs to both generate profits and fulfill their global corporate social responsibility. The job opportunities and higher wages earned by workers in the SCCEs would attract refugees to these cities and create new economic opportunities for local people. Residency in SCCEs would be entirely voluntary, motivated by the social support provided and the economic opportunities offered.

The model would be based on a partnership between urban developers, investors, host country governments and international development organisations. The initial investment for the construction of these cities would come largely from funds provided by international organizations and host countries for refugee integration. These funds will be supplemented by the growing tax revenues of companies operating in the charter cities, with the goal of achieving the financial sustainability of the SCCEs.

Career opportunities and support needs of refugees and migrant workers differ greatly. Economic migrants are predominantly young, single people settling in large metropolitan areas. They are ready to get through a tough time and often have the skills and connections to integrate quickly into the job market. In contrast, refugees – like Ukrainians fleeing war – make up a large proportion of women, children and the elderly in need of housing, access to health care, childcare and education services. SCCEs could provide specialized services to these groups of refugees, responding to their specific needs and facilitating their transition to economic self-sufficiency.

The statutory charters of the SCCEs could grant refugees access to expedited procedures for professional re-accreditation and –meanwhile and based on their local qualifications – the right to work in their fields within the boundaries of the SCCE. Enabling qualified professionals to continue in their professions within and later outside the SCCEs would generate immediate welfare benefits in addition to the dignity bestowed by the ability to serve compatriots in their respective fields. SCCE schools could be staffed with native speakers so children don’t lose several school years and risk becoming a lost generation. Native-speaking doctors and nurses could treat their fellow citizens, including those affected by the war. Civil engineers could maintain the city’s infrastructure, and civil servants could work in city government, distributing welfare and helping with immigration paperwork.

The development of refugee-based civil society and informal safety nets within SCCEs would support efforts to prevent potential risks – including child labor and sexual exploitation – faced by marginalized immigrant groups with unclear integration prospects, which are amplified when they are ill-equipped to move effectively communicate and find their way in unfamiliar surroundings. For many refugees, the opportunity to live among their compatriots and work in trades in which they are qualified could offer significant advantages over other opportunities in the host country.

Neighboring communities need to be involved in decision-making processes from the start to overcome the risk that the local population will reject the idea of ​​a charter city in their vicinity. Geographically limited efforts aimed at supporting host communities to benefit from the externalities caused by SCCEs (such as the subsidized construction or rehabilitation of shared public infrastructure or the increase in the density of economic activities), combined with adequate compensation for the displaced local population, would help reduce the risk of social and/or political tensions.

Instead of increasing competition for available jobs between local people and arriving refugees, SCCEs would attract investment and create job opportunities for residents of neighboring communities. While operating under their own statutes, they will not be fully autonomous or sovereign, but will be integrated into regional and national development plans. The links between the SCCEs and the regional economy would increase over time, changing the perception of refugees who, rather than intensifying competition for low-paying jobs (particularly in economically backward regions), would transform them as an economic hinterland into an economic hub would provide benefits beyond the immediate goals of managing the influx of refugees. In line with the overarching policy goals of decoupling economic growth from carbon emissions, an SCCE could become authoritative – a ‘testing ground’ and ‘demonstration project’ of a modern and green city.

As SCCEs evolve from emergency relief centers to self-sustaining economic and humanitarian centers, some refugees would gain experience and local knowledge and move out of the city to pursue career and life opportunities. At the same time, local citizens could find jobs and housing in and around SCCEs. Eventually, the SCCEs could fully integrate into the host country’s economy. Alternatively, SCCEs could become hubs for dealing with future waves of refugees, providing residents with social services, legal recognition and job training, and helping them integrate into recipient countries’ labor markets or facilitating their ability to contribute to their respective countries’ eventual reconstruction efforts.

The current refugee crises increase the urgency to develop a sustainable framework, possibly with SCCEs as a conceptual anchor. A pilot charter city could ease the pressure on the infrastructure and public services of cities struggling to accommodate a sudden influx of large numbers of refugees and serve as a testing ground to validate the feasibility and cost of implementing SCCEs for potentially even larger waves of refugees to be assessed in the near future.

The costs of building and maintaining the SCCEs could be high – but in some situations they will be lower than the total direct and indirect costs of decentralized refugee integration. The economic benefits of an SCCE approach and its prospects for economic sustainability, particularly when charter cities are used to host multiple waves of refugees, could generate significant returns on the initial investment of host country taxpayers and the international development community.