An Economic Solution to a Humanitarian Crisis

05/20/2015 12:35 am ET | Updated May 19, 2016
ROMEO GACAD via Getty Images

"For the displaced of Southeast Asia, the outlook remains dark. Even by the most optimistic estimates no more than half the present refugee population will be resettled in the foreseeable future. What's to become of the others?"

That quote is from an article published in National Geographic 35 years ago. In the article "Thailand Refuge from Terror," from the May 1980 issue, writer W. E. Garrett describes the appalling conditions in Southeast Asia driven by Communist aggression, genocide and starvation in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were poised to flood over Thailand's eastern border. A map accompanying the article describes Burma, now Myanmar, with the following note: "Fighting between minority groups and the central Burmese Government creates a trickle of refugees into Thailand."

That was then, and this is now. Right now hundreds of refugees fleeing Myanmar due to ethnic discrimination and persecution are adrift on boats in the Andaman Sea. Over the past week, vessels have been turned away from not only Thailand, but also Malaysia and Indonesia. According to the United Nations, over 25,000 refugees have taken to the seas in the first three months of 2015, which is more than double the rate from 2014. In order to address the regional refugee crisis, fifteen Asian countries are scheduled to meet in Thailand on May 29.

As history has shown us, refugee problems are not something new. And they are certainly not confined to Southeast Asia.

The most significant refugee crisis in recent years is the result of the Syrian civil war and the associated military conflicts in the Middle East. Millions have been displaced and are seeking safe haven in not only neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, but also in Europe and beyond. Europe is also absorbing refugees from Africa. Just last month, a boat attempting to cross the Mediterranean capsized, drowning hundreds of the refugees on board. Even the United States has recently seen overwhelming numbers of asylum seekers flood across its southern border, largely fleeing conflict in Central America.

There seem to be two perspectives with regard to the latest surge of refugees seeking safe harbor in countries around the world. The first is communal empathy and general humanitarian concern. Pertaining to the wave of refugees crossing the Mediterranean, Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, asked, "How many more people will have to drown until we finally act in Europe...? How many times more do we want to express our dismay, only to then move on to our daily routine?"

The second perspective relates to many countries' fears of using their economic resources to support refugees. A recent comment from the Malaysian Foreign Minister, Anifah Aman, sums up how many nations feel about hosting refugees: "...we cannot afford to accept more of them, as a huge number already exist here--and so far no countries want to settle them."

Many believe that it is impossible to put a price on human life. Yet this is precisely what happens when nations use economic arguments to turn thousands of desperate people away from their borders. When this perspective prevails, perhaps the solution is to address the global refugee problem not as a humanitarian issue, but as an economic one.

Currently, the most influential voice for refugees is the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). According to its website, "Its primary purpose is to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. It strives to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country." The UNHCR's job -- and it is an essential one -- is to advocate on behalf of refugees. However, there is nothing in its mandate related to addressing the economic hardship undertaken by countries that host refugees.

To help host nations to meet the economic demands of welcoming thousands of refugees across their borders, perhaps a global economic leader, such as the International Monetary Fund, should also participate in discussions of how to address the refugee crisis. Such a leader could encourage discussion about shifting the economic burden of hosting refugees from the host country to the country from which the refugees originated. Why not consider at least some of the costs incurred by a host nation as a globally recognized liability of the nation that the refugees fled?

The UNHCR already documents a refugee's originating country and final destination. No doubt countries can quantify the per capita economic expense of hosting refugees. An independent economic organization (or even an arm of the UNHCR) could track these expenses and label them a "Refugee Expense." Creating a Refugee Expense program would not only assist the refugees' host nation, but it would also penalize countries that caused the refugees to seek asylum elsewhere. Host nations could have a variety of means by which they may settle the financial liability with the originating nation. Repayment, structured in the form of a loan, could be one option. Credit ratings for originating countries could be downgraded. Even trade balances could be modified using the Refugee Expense as a debit or credit to accounts between nations.

Our global community must strive to create a world in which no one is forced to flee his or her home due to persecution, discrimination, political instability or violence. However until such a world exists, nations that drive their own citizens to flee should be economically punished. This may also be an effective way to relieve the financial pressures sustained by host countries that provide both humanitarian and economic support for refugee populations. Critically, it may save the lives of thousands who perish while nations are paralyzed with indecision about how to provide basic humanitarian services.