A non-profit called Refugee Cities is working to turn refugee camps into permanent cities, so displaced people can set-up their own local commerce and infrastructure. These special enterprise zones (SEZ) would offer refugees more opportunities than current aid strategies have been able to provide.
The jobs and revenue created within these cities would benefit those in the camps as well as host countries. They could also equip displaced people with new job skills in a number of industries for when they return to their homeland.
"We have received a lot of interest from tech companies interested in training refugees and outsourcing coding work or simpler internet-based work via platforms like Upwork," Michael Miller, executive director of Refugee Cities, told Seeker. "Displaced people might have the opportunity to learn skills useful in the digital economy that they can apply back home."
Miller mentioned that some companies like RBK (ReBoot Camp), and Techfugees, are currently training refugees in engineering work and are forming relationships with Silicon Valley firms in hopes they will hire them in the future.
The fact that these cities will be built in Special Economic Zones could add to the benefits for the host countries. SEZ give a government the opportunity to experiment with new policies that don't have a nationwide effect. In China, certain tax and business incentives implemented within SEZ have spurred rapid economic growth in the country.
Many of these host countries are in desperate need of an economic boost. As of 2015, 65.3 million people have been displaced globally, and population growth, climate change and continued civil unrest are expected to make the refugee crisis worse going forward.
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Refugee Cities is somewhat critical of how the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has handled the crisis in the past. The UNHCR has been very active in providing aid where possible, but their main focus is on donations rather than preparing refugees for the future.
"Despite their best efforts, the resources of the UNHCR consistently fall short of its requirements to meet people's basic needs, let alone to achieve any long-term development goals," Refugee Cities writes on its website.
UNHCR appears to recognize that aid alone won't work. Earlier this year, they ran the Refugee Challenge for the What Design Can Do conference in Amsterdam, where competitors designed products that will assist in the development and integration of refugees, particularly those in urban areas.
UNHCR has also stopped promoting refugee camps as a viable long-term solution for displacement, and is focusing on integrating refugees into local populations instead. "From the perspective of refugees, alternatives to camps means being able to exercise rights and freedoms, make meaningful choices regarding their lives and have the possibility to live with greater dignity, independence and normality as members of communities," UNHCR said in their 2014 Policy on Alternatives to Camps.
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Refugees are also taking it upon themselves to change living conditions inside the camps. At the Zaatari camp in Jordan, residents figured out how to power their businesses with electricity from the power grid, and they even built swimming pools to find some relief from the intense summer heat.
Refugee Cities plans to set-up their locations in buildings and warehouses near the existing camps, and turn them into business incubators for residents. Once the refugees leave, the spaces can be used as a number of different urban facilities like retail shops, offices, social service or apartment complexes.
Despite the difficulty of getting these cities approved, Miller is convinced that once officials see the benefits, they will want to make them permanent. "It's important to note that after the residents have been working, operating their own businesses, and being educated, it will be much more likely the government will want them to stay, because they will be contributing strongly to the economy and society," Miller told Seeker.
"Most refugees return to their homeland if and when it becomes livable," he continued. "[But] over time, if the city is free and in a good location, it should become a thriving area with a mix of nationals and immigrants living and working together. That's not a place most governments will want to close down."
The next step is gaining more investors as well as finding "strategic partners to help advance the effort, including international NGOs, government aid and development agencies, the UNHCR and inter-governmental development institutions," Refugee Cities said. The company is currently scouting locations that have the least opposition toward the idea of a refugee city, the most need for one and the most potential for economic gain.
With the right location, investors and support from the local community, Refugee Cities hopes to move forward with their first project in 2017, but can't reveal any details just yet. "We have some exciting prospects in the works that, if things go well, would mean we're very close," Miller said. "I have to keep that under wraps for now, unfortunately."
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