Could Refugee Camps Be Startup Cities?
For students researching Middle East policy, this fascinating July 4th NYT article is highly recommended: Refugee Camp for Syrians in Jordan Evolves as a Do-It-Yourself City.
at a pace stunning to see, Zaatari is becoming an informal city: a sudden, do-it-yourself metropolis of roughly 85,000 with the emergence of neighborhoods, gentrification, a growing economy and, under the circumstances, something approaching normalcy, though every refugee longs to return home. There is even a travel agency that will provide a pickup service at the airport, and pizza delivery, with an address system for the refugees that camp officials are scrambling to copy.
With over fifty million refugees around the world, maybe it is time to rethink policies that restrict migration and channel refugees into state-controlled camps. Maybe increased economic opportunities will enable refugee camps to transform themselves into safe and dynamic urban centers.
These vast forced migrations have accelerated discussions about the need to treat camps as more than transitional population centers, more than human holding pens with tents for transients. A number of forward-thinking aid workers and others are looking at refugee camps as potential urban incubators, places that can grow and develop and even benefit the host countries — places devised from the get-go to address those countries’ long-term needs — rather than become drags on those nations.
The Zaatari camp is still awful and in ways it resembles shantytowns around cities in the developing world. In shantytowns as in refugee camps, most enterprise is informal (illegal). Businesses exist and some thrive, but are still informal, that is, without permits or licenses from host governments or the U.N. bodies that supervise refugee camps. (Earlier posts discuss these problems.)
It is a squalid, barren, crime-ridden place. Most of those businesses and shops are unauthorized. Much of the site remains a tent city. But it’s a far cry from a camp like Azraq, which Jordan and the United Nations refugee agency opened to Syrians recently, or camps in Turkey, run by the Turkish government, that have state-of-the-art facilities but are designed to suppress the sort of ground-up urbanism that has altered Zaatari.
Consider an alternative model for “refugee camps”–the experience of Hong Kong in the 1950s and 60s. Through the 1950s over two million refugees arrived in Hong Kong from communist China. Most arrived with nothing but what they could carry. Yet within a few decades Hong Kong became the wealthiest place in the world. How did that happen? It is an important lesson showing that refugees, though a cost in the short-term, can help create tremendous wealth once settled.
My mother’s cousin, Bill Harper, lived in Hong Kong in the 1950s and his Rotary Club provided housing for refugees from China. The Rotary Club built apartment buildings for refugee families where fifteen families per floor shared bathrooms and kitchens. Rotary members helped find employment for new refugees and after a few months, families would move to small apartments, making room for new refugees. This December 1960 article from The Rotarian tells some of this story.
The first episode of Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose series begins with a look at properity created by impoverished immigrants to New York City in the early 1900s. Economic freedom in America enabled poor immigrants to earn, save, and make a better life for themselves and their children. It wasn’t easy, and immigrants worked long hours with wages far below what Americans today expect. But compared to life in the countries they left, life here was much better.
The next Free to Choose segment looks at the similar success story of refugees in Hong Kong. In the 1960s refugees from China found work in Hong Kong factories making cheap plastic toys and other goods. Friedman notes that Hong Kong lacks natural resources, except for a nice harbor and the most valuable resource of all: free people.
Hong Kong is a leading example of a charter city. Each day, through millions of exchanges, cities play a central role in creating the wealth of any region. Rights have been protected by charter in cities like Lubeck and Hamburg of the Hanseatic League, to Hong Kong, Singapore, Monaco, Andorra and others today. (Singapore, Dubai, and some other cities protect economic freedom but are less impressive when it comes to protecting civil liberties.)
Economist Paul Romer has promoted charter cities, and this great article in The Atlantic explains how charter cities were the source of progress and prosperity in western and southern Europe, and a source for civil and economic liberties.
• Here is Paul Romer’s TED talk: Why the world needs charter cities.
Could refugee camps become charter or startup cities? Or could a network of Startup Cities provide an alternative to many of the world’s refugees?