Giving Compass' Take:

• Gerasimos Tsourapas explains how refugee commodification prevents humane, effective migration policy. 

• How can countries better understand and address the realities of migration policy implications? 

• Learn about asset-based funding framework for refugee crises

Ethiopia’s 2019 “Jobs Compact” – a $500-million program that aims to create 100,000 jobs for Ethiopians and refugees – has been hailed as the latest example of the international community providing economic support to states most severely affected by forced migration. In the past few years, similar “migration deals” have been negotiated with Jordan and Lebanon. Most famously, perhaps, the March 2016 E.U.–Turkey “deal” stopped the flow of irregular migration into Europe, in return for €6 billion ($6.8 billion) in economic relief. There have been recent calls for a formal Turkish Compact, as well.

Conceived as a novel model for managing forced displacement, such schemes are presented as ways to transform a broken refugee system by supporting the integration of displaced persons into the host state job market. The $1.7 billion Jordan Compact, for example, aimed to “turn the Syrian refugee crisis into a development opportunity.” This type of “win-win” arrangement has been characterized as “one of the most important economic experiments in the world today.” Similarly, the World Bank promised to “transform the [Syrian refugee] crisis into new opportunities” for Lebanon. It put forth similar statements with regard to the Ethiopian Jobs Compact.

Western states appear less receptive to hosting refugee populations and prefer to outsource the management of forced displacement to the global south. So why should the proliferation of migration deals be a cause for concern? To put it simply, such arrangements encourage the treatment of refugees as commodities. They empower host states to view displaced populations as a resource – or, more aptly, a source of economic “rent.”

In political economy, rent refers to excess payments when there is no cost of production. A number of states in the Middle East are considered “rentier states” as they derive a substantial portion of their national revenues from foreign sources in the form of rent, namely via the sale of oil. Migration deals transform forced displacement populations into a novel source of rent. Provision of economic incentives to host states of first asylum in exchange for their continuing to host refugees sets the stage for the creation of “refugee rentier states.”

My research into the politics of the Syrian refugee crisis focuses on host states’ responses to migration deals, and identifies a rising trend in their attempts to leverage their position for material gain. Governments are beginning to employ refugees in their foreign policy agenda, particularly in their negotiations with industrialized states of the global north. A language of shared responsibility and human rights protection is disappearing beneath new discourses about economic opportunities, refugees’ self-reliance and their integration into host countries’ development plans.

What are the implications of adopting an instrumentalist, development-centered strategy? Even if we set aside the (salient) moral implications of such policymaking, three notable issues are apparent.

First, given that this form of economic aid is based, by definition, on a host state’s treatment of its refugee population, migration deals create new ways for developing countries to become dependent on international donors.

Second, the commodification of refugee populations skews host-state policies with a view to attracting external funding.

At its most extreme, refugee commodification allows host states to engage in coercive migration diplomacy.

Read the full article about avoiding refugee commodification by Gerasimos Tsourapas at News Deeply.