In their Op-Ed published in Het Parool, professors Thea Hilhorst and Jorrit Rijpma reflect on their research and offer advice and tips on how governments can better approach the reception in the region policy. Below is a summarized, edited, and translated version of this essay.
Migration and asylum remain hot topics. Yet politicians seem united in their preference for reception in the region. Supporting host countries in providing humane and respectful reception is simply cheaper and less sensitive than offering asylum in Europe. This suits parties on the right-wing, but also offers parties on the left a way out because help will still be offered, albeit elsewhere. Moreover, it keeps refugees from getting on rickety boats towards Europe.
Significant amounts of money are still going to traditional emergency shelters. At the same time, the image of refugees in camps is increasingly outdated. On the one hand, refugees are more often holed up in the big cities in neighboring countries, and on the other hand, reception camps are developing into refugee cities with their own economies.
Golden policy standard
The focus of policy has therefore shifted in recent years from emergency aid to programs to provide refugees with a decent living by integrating them into the local economy. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, also sees local integration as one of the "durable solutions" for refugees. This objective is embraced internationally and in Europe, for example in the UN Global Refugee Compact and the European Migration Partnerships. In addition to the traditional humanitarian approach, reception programs in the region are increasingly focusing on integration through the provision of education and job creation.
Since host countries are often not keen on labor market competition, they are persuaded with the promise of development cooperation and trade benefits. Resettlement, the taking over of vulnerable refugees from the region by EU member states, has also proven crucial in creating support in the region.
Now that reception in the region offers an enticing prospect that, on paper, benefits everyone, it has quickly been elevated to the gold standard of policy. Many European countries have adopted the policy and the Netherlands is internationally known as a booster, among other things through the Prospect programme. In it, 500 million has been raised with a number of international partners for reception in eight different countries in the Middle East and Africa. This makes it all the more important to find out how this policy works out in practice. Our exploratory research, with a focus on Lebanon, Jordan and Ethiopia, shows that this is not yet so easy. The exact consequences of these policies, positive and negative, are difficult to fathom.
We can give the negotiators of the coalition agreement - and the new House of Representatives - the following points of attention on the basis of this.
First of all, reception in the region stands or falls by the political will and administrative quality of host countries. Do they support the policy, do they want to offer refugees legal protection, are they actually committed to improving the position of refugees? What happens with the resources that the Netherlands makes available? That things do not always go well was demonstrated in February when the Volkskrant reported on the use of pickup trucks financed by the Netherlands against the Ugandan opposition.
The next question is whether the budgets for reception in the region are real. Are they additional contributions and is it enough to fulfill the promises? So far, the amounts fall far short of the ambition of the programs and often involve shuffling already allocated funds. Both at the European and at the national level, the money flows should not only be used more adequately but also more transparently.
Reception in the region should be accompanied by resettlement commitments, with some of these people being offered asylum in Europe. This relieves the countries in the region and creates support. The question is how Europe, starting with the Netherlands, can be persuaded to keep its promises to take in highly vulnerable refugees. So far, this is still happening too little.
The European Commission, in its proposal for a new Pact for Asylum and Migration, is right to insist on a greater role for the European Union in resettlement. This is a shared interest with the host countries, certainly when there is a risk that countries in the region will be unable to cope with receiving large groups of refugees and consequently run the risk of destabilization themselves. Financial support and resettlement cannot be left behind.
Furthermore, reception programs in the region often focus on strengthening local government. However, this does not translate on a one-to-one basis into improvements in aid to refugees, but also into advanced border and migration controls by countries outside Europe. In the words of Sigrid Kaag, after her visit to Jordan in 2018: "Aid can prevent refugees from going to Europe after all." This is where the policy should not slip. Reception in the region should not only focus on keeping refugees and migrants out of Europe but must sufficiently fulfill its promise of development. That starts with clarity about the money flows. How much of the budget is actually used to improve the position of refugees and host countries themselves?
Reception in the region is a popular policy. It has the potential to be a valuable addition to national and European policy, but cannot replace it. The idea that in the event of a new refugee crisis the borders will remain closed, as Prime Minister Rutte recently suggested, is practically and legally unfeasible; reception in the region will do little to change this.
If the policy is only intended to keep refugees out of Europe or is just a palliative, it is an empty promise. It is up to the formers to take this into account in the negotiations on a new coalition agreement and not to be blinded by the rhetoric on reception in the region. Our representatives of the people, both in the Netherlands and in Europe, will have to keep a close eye on the elaboration and implementation of the policy.