“I don’t think academics choose the areas they work on by accident,” Alexander Betts tells us, explaining his interest in migration. “A starting point for me was being 19-years old, doing summer voluntary work in a reception centre for asylum seekers in the Netherlands. I met people with skills, talents and aspirations that were stuck in bureaucratic limbo, unable to work and contribute. That felt very unjust.”

Inspired by this experience, Alex has devoted a major part of his academic work to studying the economic lives of refugees, and how we could make better use of their untapped potential. With his research and proposals on how to fix the broken migration governance system, he came into public prominence as a commentator during the 2015 European refugee crisis, ardently arguing for change in Europe’s handling of the situation.

Now six years later, he believes that we will soon “face a real and underestimated challenge … potentially another serious global refugee crisis”. The pandemic has heightened the already difficult situation of forcibly displaced people around the world, whose number has been rising over the past decade, and is currently estimated to stand at 80 million (of whom 26 million are refugees).

“The recession will undercut a generation of development in Africa and other regions.”

The most immediate impact came from economic shutdowns: “In cities, which host the majority of the world’s refugees, refugees tend to rely upon the informal economy and their own networks for their economic survival strategies. They rarely get access to aid, and some governments around the world have denied non-citizens access to food assistance so they’ve been hit extremely hard.”

However, he is most concerned about the consequences of a global recession that is predicted to ensue: “The recession will undercut a generation of development in Africa and other regions. We know from existing social science literature that massive economic shocks affect the number of fragile states, reversion to authoritarianism, and levels of conflict. These mechanisms are likely to be exacerbated, leading to more people being displaced.”

Alex stresses repeatedly throughout our conversation that this is likely to be accompanied by a decreased willingness of the international community to help refugees. Already during the COVID-19 crisis, he observes that “countries have retreated away from multilateralism and focused very much on their own challenges at home. There is very clear evidence that governments have used COVID-19 as a justification to close their borders to refugees and engage in practices of deportation of asylum seekers. On the other side, there is evidence of cuts in overseas development aid.” Britain, for example, has cut aid from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%.

The resulting economic downturn might perpetuate this trend: “The recession is going to exacerbate the drivers of populist nationalism that will undercut the willingness of countries around the world to host refugees and support refugees in their host countries. So I feel we face a real and underestimated challenge.”

“The drivers of displacement are getting ever more complex and proliferating.”

Yet Alex also notes that the ‘‘drivers of displacement are getting ever more complex and proliferating’’. It is unlikely that the recovery from this post-pandemic economic recession will end the escalating global migration crisis. There are estimates that by only 2050, the effects of climate change will displace 200 million people worldwide, intensifying state fragility and violence. ‘‘Human displacement will be one of the defining challenges of our century.’’

He stresses that the global migration governance system is outdated and deeply unfit to deal with the new challenges: “At the time of the 1951 Refugee Convention when the modern refugee system was created, the focus was on people fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution. They were mainly fleeing the aftermath of the Holocaust and totalitarianism in the early Cold War context.”

Although this idea of persecution still remains relevant, the primary drivers of forced migration have become more complex: “Today, most people that are displaced are displaced broadly by states unable to provide for the human rights of their citizens. They are leaving failed and fragile states. The rules are very arbitrary: you can flee certain types of deprivations and get access to refugee status, but others, such as large-scale famine, drought, or inhabiting an uninhabitable territory, often fall ambiguously with respect to the 1951 Convention.”

How should the system be reformed?

On the one hand, Alex insists that nation-states have to wake up and “create international institutions that can equitably distribute and share responsibility for people who cross international borders on human rights grounds not covered by the 1951 Convention.”

However, he is also aware that finding mechanisms to redistribute refugee populations around the world is unlikely to be politically feasible, especially in the current context of the global shift towards unilateralism and the rise of populism.

“We must ‘rethink and reimagine camps to allow people to live in dignity and with a purpose’”

The most pressing issue, according to Alex, is that the majority of the world’s refugees are hosted by a relatively small number of lower-middle-income countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, or Bangladesh, which tend to lack the capacity to provide them with adequate assistance and integrate them into their workforce. Consequently, refugees in these countries often face abysmal living conditions and are, by different regulations prohibiting them from participating in the labour market, prevented from realising their potential and living purposeful and fulfilling lives.

Therefore, he proposes that our efforts should concentrate on “creating better responses where the majority of the world’s refugees are”. Namely, we should “rethink and reimagine camps to allow people to live in dignity and with a purpose to have access to jobs, education and opportunity”.

Putting this into practice is far from simple, however: “Jobs have to come from the private sector, particularly if they are to be sustainable,” explains Alex. “But getting businesses to invest in fragile regions of the world, such as border areas in Ethiopia or Kenya, which host significant numbers of refugees, is very hard. You need a lot of innovative mechanisms of co-finance between the private sector and the public sector to attract investment and for those areas to develop.”

In 2015, Alexander joined forces with Oxford development economist Paul Collier and initiated the implementation of a pilot model representing one potential method of creating more jobs for refugees, set in the context of Jordan, hosting more than half a million Syrian refugees. The project (known as the “Jordanian compact”) involved the Jordanian government’s promise to grant work permits to 200,000 Syrians in exchange for international financial support and the prospect of foreign investment in special economic zones. To ensure political sustainability, zones were supposed to provide jobs for both Syrians and Jordanian nationals.

When asked how he reflects on the project five years after its implementation, Alex acknowledges that “with hindsight, it was a political success but an economic failure … It was premised upon the idea that you could create a large number of manufacturing jobs and garment sector jobs for refugees. But the manufacturing industry has not wanted to relocate to Jordan – it’s understandably gone to other regions of the world.”

Nonetheless, he is convinced that although the project did not necessarily bring revolutionary change, it was a shot in the right direction. “It was to say: work and employment matter. They’re crucial for dignity, wellbeing, and sustainability. In different contexts, the ways it can be achieved politically look quite different.”

“We need to find a way of talking meaningfully about structural transformation in the global economy without migration being the easy scapegoat.”

At the end of the interview, our conversation shifts towards the overlap of survival migration with economic migration, whose scale is equally likely to grow substantially. Indeed, in the upcoming decades, Africa is predicted to experience massive population growth and rising levels of youth unemployment, as its population is predicted to double to 2.5 billion by 2050.

“This obviously has implications for the aspirations to migrate and aspirations to migrate to Europe,” says Alex. “It’s going to need economic transformation and a real multilateral engagement to support demographic transition and greater opportunities in Africa. Europe in particular will need to work with Africa on developmental, demographic, and migration challenges.”

Increased collaboration between states is also particularly pertinent in the context of emerging structural challenges in the global economy – “the collapse of labour-intensive manufacturing in rich countries, the implications of automation and off-shoring, and the global recession that is going to come after COVID-19”.

Attitudes towards migration will need to evolve alongside future changes to the global migration governance system. “The challenge is much about politics and perception. When it comes to migration, economic rationality doesn’t always translate into political consensus. But it’s important for political sustainability that migration policies retain democratic backing,” says Alexander.

“We need to find a way of talking meaningfully about structural transformation in the global economy without migration being the easy scapegoat that politicians rely upon for narrating those changes to their voters and citizens.”

Alexander’s new book, ‘The Wealth of Refugees: How Displaced People Can Build Economies’ (Oxford University Press), where he expands upon some of the ideas covered in this interview, is coming out on 22 April 2021.