Refugees don’t want handouts: they want jobs

Mohamed El Dahshan, World Economic Forum

Polykastro, Greece

Khaled wakes up early. Most people in the refugee camp in Polykastro, in northern Greece, do – the tents get too hot to sleep shortly after the sun rises.

But Khaled wakes up with intent: he has to get to work, one of the rare people in the camp who do. He starts prepping the falafel stand he holds, in a corner of the gas station convenience store next to which the refugee camp is set up, sprawling across the parking lot and surrounding spaces.

In some camps, entrepreneurialism thrives

The development of the camp economy is commensurate to its perenniality. For instance, the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp, the Zaatari camp in Jordan,has nearly 3,000 businesses, from elaborate pastry shops to bridal gown rental stores.

Goods manufactured in the camp are sold outside, to Jordanians and Syrians alike. But Zaatari is five years old – and its inhabitants expect to remain there until conditions in Syria allow them to go home. As such, the Jordanian government has slowly relaxed some of its restrictions on refugee labour, especially in light of a pre-war agreement with Syria regarding exchanges of qualified workers, and often willfully turns a blind eye to informal work.

An urgent need for short-term solutions

Involving refugees in the provision of services to their own camp, in exchange for pay, would be an important first step. From cooking to cleaning to teaching children, these functions should be formalized and remunerated, if only for a few months. It takes much less time than that for a soul to despair anyway. And formalizing this employment would generate important services to camp residents, most notably education to children, who right now have none, or at most a couple of hours of basic school per week.

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