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There's no place like home

Za'atari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan Jordi Matas/UNHCR

Around 2,400 years ago, Plato had a vision of The Republic, the first example of our fascination with the idea that, if we could build a new society from scratch, we could engineer out all those flaws that prevent our actual society from achieving perfection. 

In practice, what this really means is engineering out the humans, which wouldn't have been a problem with the Republic, since nobody in their right mind would have wanted to live there – it's basically Hogwarts as a totalitarian state, with Dumbledore obsessed with eugenics instead of magic.

Plato thought this was a small price to pay for a Just City ruled over by philosopher-kings, but apparently our modern day philosopher-kings are equally taken with the idea, especially now that a few refugees are knock-knock-knocking on Europe's door. 

Having realised that the existing framework for addressing the record-breaking number of displaced people around the world is a disaster, the rich are ready to try anything (except letting them in, of course). 

One idea growing in popularity is that we might kill two birds with one stone: give refugees a place to live and revive the dying regions of Europe. In the words of Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of the think tank New America, refugees “could be welcomed not into camps, but rather proto-cities where the ‘global community’... can encourage hope of a different, more secure life by nurturing positive seeds of knowledge, capital, and liberal self-government.”

Slaughter cites Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, currently attempting to buy a Greek island where refugees can found a new society. Then there is the “Refugee Nation” proposed by US real estate developer Jason Buzi, who wants you to know that he's spent a lot of his own money setting up a crowdfunding website (rather than, I don't know, talking to refugees). It's noteworthy that these plans always seem to be put forward by the extremely rich, rather than by the displaced people themselves.

More worryingly, Killian Kleinschmidt – the former UNHCR manager of Jordan’s Za’atari Refugee Camp – has mooted a similar approach. “Many places in Europe are totally deserted because the people have moved to other places,” he said in a recent interview, “You could put in a new population, set up opportunities to develop and trade and work. You could see them as special development zones which are actually used as a trigger for an otherwise impoverished neglected area.”

If we haven't been able to persuade our own citizens to stay in impoverished villages, why on earth do we think refugees would be interested to settle there?

All these resettlement schemes risk recreating the refugee camp experience on a larger scale, like nature reserves where free-range migrants roam about their natural habitat. I live in the Balkans, and what Kleinschmidt calls “impoverished neglected areas”, we just call “countries” – with the result that Balkan citizens accounted for 12 percent of the total number of asylum applications in the European Union in 2012. If we haven't been able to persuade our own citizens to stay in impoverished villages, why on earth do we think refugees would be interested to settle there?

The idea isn't completely without merit, as respected refugee experts Alexander Betts and Robin Cohen have pointed out. Further support comes from economist Paul Romer, who has for years been promoting a similar idea of Charter Cities – start-up cities that would “allow societies to experiment with new rules”. Unfortunately, the only real attempt to implement a charter city stumbled when the Honduran supreme court ruled it unconstitutional, and Romer withdrew when he realised that the project was “trying to create a system that establishes a type of aristocracy that will never be subject to local electoral control.”

An unconstitutional polity easily hijacked by an elite; just like Plato's Republic, it's an inherently anti-democratic project. Kleinschmidt did a good job as camp manager while Za’atari grew over a three-year period to become the 10th largest settlement in Jordan, but it's telling that he styled himself as the entirely unelected Mayor of Za’atari. He was making a rhetorical point, which coincidentally betrayed the true nature of refugee camps as benign dictatorships.

Kleinschmidt made a particularly smart call when he called on the expertise of urban planners in the Netherlands. The humanitarian community is finally starting to recognise that as refugee camps grow in size, they become virtual cities requiring the same type of management as any other urban space. Even if you manage to build a perfect refugee camp, however, there's still one tiny problem: “Nobody likes living there.” The majority of refugees don't live in camps, but in host communities in urban areas; likewise, migrants look for economic opportunities among the bright lights of big cities.

What we see as problems of migration are in fact problems of urbanisation – and we’re a long way from addressing those problems. To take a pressing example, UNHCR's attempts to generate more support for host communities in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have “not been greeted with enthusiasm, even among countries that pump money into the camp system.”  It's clear that the interest in blank slate solutions – whether they are refugee camps or charter cities – is just one part of a wider effort to avoid the political reality of population movement, whether voluntary or forced.

I've managed to write this entire column without using the word that describes all of these various schemes: Utopian. Utopia of course comes from the title of Thomas More's 1516 book; it means “No Place” in ancient Greek. Plato would not be surprised: perhaps as his Republic itself was intended, these schemes to improve the human condition are best left as thought experiments.


 Paul Currion is an independent consultant to humanitarian organisations. He previously worked on responses in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Indian Ocean Tsunami. He lives in Belgrade.

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