Syrian refugees living in an abandoned factory near Saida, Lebanon

Moving From Seeing Refugees as a Burden to Human Capital

Remarks from Honorary Chair HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal at the World Refugee & Migration Council’s September 2021 panel discussion Thinking Long-term about Syrian Refugees

The launch of these reports comes at a time when donor fatigue levels have never been higher, your recommendations offer actionable solutions for host states to execute with relative ease, so one hopes. Cascading crises in Lebanon, northern Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and elsewhere will augur badly for refugees everywhere if the international community does not step up to all its obligations both responsibly and immediately.

There is, as underlined in the reports, a need for a “primary change from seeing refugees as a burden to host countries to seeing them as human capital to be used in meeting the development priorities of host countries.” – to move away from the vulnerability-based approach to a development approach to humanize the stats – so to speak.  We need to move away from relief to development, empowerment, and entrustment of refugee populations – as this is causing some angst. We are happy to say that in Jordan, 20% of the Syrian refugee population is solvent, and this of course reflects on their talent and aptitude, and our openness in hosting.

I have a question. Refugeedom, should it be thought of not only in terms of human capital but in terms of motility?[1] Vincent Kaufmann, Manfred Max Bergman, and Dominique Joy’s concept of motility is an extremely intriguing one, and I bring it back to your attention in terms of the following key words: access, competence, appropriation. I would like to suggest that allowing for and working towards a multiplicity of mobility trajectories – whether conceived of in spatial or social terms – is an undertaking key to a future where the rights of refugees, having ebbed, can begin to flow again. In this instance, I refer to the Levant. Descartes once said if everything is west where does the sun rise – ex oriente lux. The significance of the levant, and the transnational nature of the refugee crisis in the levant and even beyond the two rivers, is of huge importance.

The treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is not just about protection and sanctuary, but more generally about the nature of their human identity, their personhood, if you would like to use that expression, and the nature of citizenship, belonging and national identity.

HRH Prince El Hassan bin talal

The current resettlement rates as per as per UNHCR, “point to one of the lowest levels of resettlement witnessed in almost two decades – a blow for refugee protection and for the ability to save lives and protect those most at risk.”[2] Today, I would like to suggest that in Syria, as a number of states including Denmark and Sweden restrict protection and increase the pressure on refugees from Syria to go home, the harrowing testimonies in Amnesty International’s recent reports on the torture rape and disappearance of refugee returnees is proof that, by and large, no part of the country is safe to return to.

Today, an estimated 1.4 million refugees require urgent resettlement (UNHCR). While Canada and Germany have done admirably in that regard with respect to Syria’s refugees; others have not. I’d like to make a few points here and say it was only when the geopolitical interests of the West in hosting those fleeing the former Soviet Union faded that resettlement was cast aside in the mid-1980s as a preferred durable solution. Of course, that the end of the Cold War also coincided with an increase in the labor supply contributed to the move away from resettlement as a preferred solution.[3] I’d also like to point out here that algorithmic weighting, recognizing the aptitudes and talents of people, does contribute positively to the workforce – but I wonder whether that weighting should wait until they have arrived at the borders of western countries or whether it should take place as or before they leave this part of the world. I wonder, with the Afghan crisis and the overflow into Pakistan, whether this should be a humanizing process – a humanizing of the stats and the digits.

Andrew Shacknove, of the University of Oxford, suggests: “The placement of asylum-seeking within the discourse of immigration policy destabilizes the inter-state system and even more so in an era of receding multilateralism and rising inequality.  A preference for containing displaced populations in zones of conflict raises troubling human rights issues, is a risky strategy for inducing state instability, and may undermine the fragile formation of new or reconstituted states.”[4] Let me remind you here as I am deeply concerned about the water situation in our region, that water is a human right, not to mention the other SDGs that speak of the index of deprivation, which includes hunger among other issues.

So the Global Compact for Refugees (GCR) – where are we? To ease pressure on host countries; to enhance refugee self-reliance; to expand access to third country-solutions and to support conditions in counties of origin for return in safety and dignity. However much the GCR was viewed, at the time, as opposed to other compacts, the final GCR document was, in fact, quite conservative in that it sought to preserve the existing international framework for refugee protection. I recall discussing protection on so many occasions with Lloyd Axworthy. Today, we have no protection from the climate. Apart from the shortages across the board, I look at, with sadness, at the situation in Yemen today. The treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is not just about protection and sanctuary, but more generally about the nature of their human identity, their personhood, if you would like to use that expression, and the nature of citizenship, belonging and national identity.

When will we realize that in “the other” lie – as well – a multitude of ordinary and extraordinary hopes, dreams, aspirations, fears and worries – a potential hope for the future? Those who have been refugeed for two or two and a half decades are coming up to the following figures, how do humanitarian relief and political solutions apply? The figures are an increase of 5 to 6 million refugees – in a world of 7.5 billion people – is this a global crisis as we look at it on the ground? Refugees constitute less than one-third of one percent of the world’s population. The so-called refugee crisis is, in actual fact, a double crisis: a crisis of global conscience, or consciousness if you will, and a crisis of global governance. How are we supposed to perceive all of this? The Refugee Working Group (RWG) of the Madrid Peace Process, is that a model for the Syrian conflict? Do we see the possibility of a mediator, advocate, and problem solver, in a capacity as Chair of the Group? In particular, I refer here to the significant impact in terms of the humanitarian situation of Palestinian refugees

I conclude by saying, with all due respect to the outstanding work of the WRMC, the utility of an interdisciplinary, inter-state and inter- regional working group on Syrian refugees cannot be discounted. 

With unity of purpose, maybe we might be able to pull out of this very gloomy period in which we are all living. 

Thank you, and salutations to you all.

Image: Syrian refugees living in an abandoned factory near Saida, Lebanon (Flickr / Anthony Gale)

[1] Kaufmann, Vincent, Manfred Max Bergman, and Dominque Joy “Motility: Mobility as Capital,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 28. No. 4, 2004.

[2] UNHCR. “Refugee resettlement numbers fall to lowest in two decades,” UNHCR, November 19, 2020.

[3] Chimni, B.S. “From Resettlement to Involuntary Repatriation: Towards a Critical History of Durable Solutions to Refugee Problems,” UNHCR Working Paper No. 2 New issues in Refugee Research, 1999.

[4] Shacknove, Andrew. “From Asylum to Containment,” International Journal of Refugee Law, Vol. 5, No. 4, 1993.


  • HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal

    His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan bin Talal was born in Amman in 1947. HRH is the youngest son of Their late Majesties King Talal and Queen Zein El Sharaf, the brother of His late Majesty King Hussein, and the uncle of HM King Abdullah II. Prince Hassan served as Jordan’s Crown Prince from April 1965 until January 1999. HRHs early schooling was in Amman. He later went to Summerfields, followed by Harrow and then Christ Church, Oxford University from where he graduated with a B.A. (Hons.) in Oriental Studies.