In recent decades, as risks of fragility, conflict, violence, climate change, and famine have soared, the number of people fleeing their homes and seeking refuge has risen to 27 million. By 2050, it is projected to quadruple. A significant share of current migrants—and an even larger share of future climate change refugees—will not return to their home countries. Previous refugee waves, set off by wars or episodes of state collapse, have proven harsh for asylum seekers, expensive for communities, and divisive politically. Images from the Mória refugee camp or the detention of small children are iconic in their portrayal of the broadly shared perception of the failures in current refugee hosting practices. Doubts that existing approaches to refugee integration could effectively accommodate the influx of potentially large numbers of future migrants have governments in receiving countries considering alternate refugee policies. The European Commission (2020), for instance, calls for a “new, durable European framework … that can provide … decent conditions for the men, women and children arriving in the EU … and  allow Europeans to trust that migration is managed in an effective and humane way, fully 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 governance systems. Clearly defined legal frameworks, good governance, efficient distribution of public goods, and modern infrastructure could support well-functioning markets and attract investments to generate higher rates of economic growth in charter cities. Based on these principles, we propose to establish sustainable charter cities-in-exile (SCCEs) as a policy framework for host countries and international development organizations to promote refugees’ self-reliance and facilitate their integration. The proposal supplements existing migration policies, especially in areas of identified procedural and logistical bottlenecks, and supports refugees in their freedom of choice of migration destinations.

SCCEs seek to provide refugees with a place of safety, an immediately available assistance network, and an accelerated path towards professional and income opportunities. A guarantor country or group of countries would enforce the SCCE’s charter while guaranteeing the safety of private sector investments and firms, including those from the country of origin with temporary headquarters-in-exile. A proper institutional architecture guaranteed and monitored by national governments and international guarantors, with direct involvement of the refugees and local communities, would help to reduce the risks of crime, human rights abuses, and sexual exploitation.

Read the full article about refugee camps by Michael Lokshin and Jan-Peter Olters at Brookings.