PRINCETON – The Syrian refugee crisis confronts the European Union with an acute dilemma. Europe has a historic responsibility to help victims of war and violence, and responsible politicians recognize that it is inhumane to bar entrance to people fleeing for their lives. For moral and practical reasons, the EU cannot build a modern version of the Iron Curtain around its perimeter. And yet it is also clear that both administrative and political problems – not least a populist backlash against the new arrivals – limit the EU’s capacity to absorb large numbers of migrants in a short period of time.
Dealing with the influx will require addressing the reasons that impel millions of people to flee their countries. And while those causes include political pressures – particularly the devastating civil wars in Syria and Iraq – the refugee flows also reflect the inability of the Middle East to produce the income growth that is lifting Asia, Latin America, and large parts of Sub-Saharan Africa out of poverty.
It is becoming increasingly clear that ensuring economic opportunities for refugees should be high on the EU’s agenda. Europe should take a page from the Syrian business community’s efforts to relocate some of their country’s enterprises to the Gaziantep Free Economic Zone in Turkey. Where possible, the EU should work with countries currently hosting refugees to establish development zones where displaced Syrians are allowed to work legally.
The lack of opportunities on offer in Syria’s neighbors is exacerbating the underlying economic problem. Young people are being forced to interrupt their education, and refugees are fully or partly barred from legal labor markets, owing to fears that they will compete for jobs with local inhabitants. They thus face a bleak choice: life in the camps, attempting to eke out a living in the informal sector, or the hope of a future in Europe. Many choose the latter.