Syrian refugees: 3 radical approaches to solving the crisis

As politicians the world over grapple with the Syrian refugee crisis, a couple of political science PhD students at the University of Toronto have come up with a list of some of the most innovative ideas.

Proposals include 'special economic zones' in camps and removing borders entirely

The massive Za'atari camp in the Jordanian desert is just one of many places where refugees from the Syrian civil war have landed. (UNICEF)

The Syrian refugee crisis has occupied people around the world and was a key issue in this fall's Canadian election.

Kiran Banerjee and Craig Damian Smith, two political science PhD students at the University of Toronto, are studying innovative ways to deal with the problem.

Here's a look at a few of the more radical proposals Banerjee and Smith have considered.

1. Set up 'special economic zones' in refugee camps

"Refugees shouldn't be sitting idly and passively for years on end. We have to empower them until they can go home."

- Alexander Betts, director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford

University of Toronto PhD student Kiran Banerjee is studying a variety of proposals for how to deal with the current refugee crisis.

World-renowned refugee studies scholar Alexander Betts points out that 95 per cent of refugees find themselves in states bordering the conflict zones they've fled and without the right to work.

He proposes creating special economic zones that would provide jobs, training and education.

"If we can't have integration, then we should be looking at camps as spaces of opportunity," says Betts.

He uses the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan as a good case example. About 83,000 Syrian refugees live in this camp without the right to work. About 15 kilometres away, there's a special economic zone that has the capacity to employ 100,000 workers, but it's only at 10 percent capacity.

PhD student Craig Damian Smith is working with Banerjee on looking for workable solutions to the refugee problem.

If Jordan would allow the refugees to work, it could benefit all involved.

Betts points out that major multinational corporations such as Royal Dutch Shell, Sony and KFC have lost out on business in Syria because of the war and could benefit from the opportunity to temporarily relocate to a safe space in Jordan.

"To make this a win-win situation for refugees, businesses and host countries, we have to have clear ethical guidelines to make it compatible with human rights standards," says Betts.

While Betts admits it's not the perfect solution, he supports it because it moves us beyond the "tragic reality."

2. Drop the borders everywhere

"Borders close off opportunities for people. Just by virtue of birth, people's life chances are determined."

-- Joseph Carens, political science professor, University of Toronto

Joseph Carens first proposed dropping all borders about 30 years ago with an article called "Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders."

He argues that it is fundamentally unjust that a person's life chances and choices are pretty much determined randomly at birth, based on the country they happen to be born in.

"When you grow up in a system, it seems natural to you," says Carens, who points out that the privilege of those born into the global north is analogous to the privilege nobles experienced under the feudal system.

It seems natural, so people aren't eager to challenge it.

"The solution can be found in opening borders completely to people who want to move," says Carens.

He recognizes that this is unlikely to happen. And given that unlikelihood, we have a special obligation to respond to the plight of refugees. "We have the responsibility for the life chances of everyone, because we've set up structures that determine what people's life chances are."

Furthermore, he says wealthy nations must be willing to make sacrifices.

"People who refuse refugees never think of what will happen to these people. The question is whether we're able to think beyond our own interests and have a commitment of solidarity with those in desperate need."

3. Welcome the stranger

A child holds a paper with the words 'Please Help Me' as she waits to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia earlier this year. (REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov)

"The government needs to get out of the way and expedite the process."

- Mary Jo Leddy, founder and director of Romero House in Toronto and adjunct professor at Regis College, University of Toronto

For the past 25 years, Mary Jo Leddy and her team of volunteers at Romero House in Toronto have been working directly with refugees and their families, providing temporary housing to more than 1,500 refugees who have made it to Canada.

"If every neighbourhood took one family and welcomed them into their existing community, that would be huge," says Leddy, a former Catholic nun.

She says it's about going back to the basic moral principle of individuals and communities welcoming a stranger in need.

"When people feel welcome, they flourish," she says, but adds that red tape can bog down that deep-rooted instinct.

"If every policy maker knew a few refugees, we'd have quite different policies. But when decisions become abstract from people's suffering, then the decisions they make are very often wrong."

She looks to Canada's acceptance of more than 50,000 refugees after the Vietnam war of a shining example of what a country can do if there's political will.

"Fill a plane full of immigration officers and then send them to Jordan and Turkey, and then send plane back. That's what you do," says Leddy. "It's not rocket science."


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