Investing in a Solution to the Migrant Crisis

Nations that have taken in refugees must prioritize economic development while seeking political solutions to the crises that have forced migrants to flee their homes.

Matthew T. McGuire, the US executive director at the World Bank Group, said “one of the biggest indicators for someone returning to their home country is how well they’ve fared economically or how well they’ve been accepted into their host community.” He said that logically, “the only way you go back home and rebuild your house is if you’ve accumulated some wealth.”

McGuire asserted the need to focus on strategic investment designed to mitigate crises.

Manal Omar, associate vice president of the Center for Middle East and Africa at the United States Institute of Peace, added: “If you don’t want more refugees, and if you don’t want to put any more money into the humanitarian crisis, you have to have a political solution.”

McGuire and Omar participated in a panel discussion at the Atlantic Council on October 3 with Christopher Schroeder, entrepreneur and author. They discussed ways to improve the lives of migrants and alleviate the burden on host countries. Jessica Ashooh, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force, moderated the discussion.

The influx of migrants—the largest movement of people since World War II—has tested the goodwill of governments, particularly in Europe.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s warm welcome to migrants fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, has resulted in the erosion of her popularity and setbacks for her party in recent state elections.

In Hungary, on the other hand, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s tough approach toward the migrants was recently endorsed in a referendum in which Hungarians voted overwhelmingly to reject the European Union’s migrant quotas for its member states.

It is not just European nations that have taken in migrants. A majority of the people who have fled the war in Syria have dispersed across the neighborhood—particularly to Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey.

Referring to protracted conflicts in the Middle East, Omar emphasized the need for “planting the seeds for reconciliation down the line.” Consequently, she asserted that “the only resolution is political will,” but certain measures can be put in place sooner, which is where the World Bank can help.

McGuire described the ways in which the World Bank has implemented innovative financial mechanisms in conflict-affected states that diverge from its traditional programs.

“We are very focused on how we can further economic development in the region, and specifically in and among those communities that are hosting so many refugees,” said McGuire.

With what McGuire calls its “financial heft,” in combination with global expertise and ability to partner with both governments and the private sector, the World Bank can strengthen economic institutions, facilitate successful integration, and create economic opportunities. McGuire emphasized the need to build assets and create growth to ease political strife and sectarianism.

Omar focused on the need to facilitate relations between host communities and migrants, as well as relations between returning migrants and local populations who remained in their home country.

Throughout the region, “as one area is liberated and people are returning, there’s revenge killings, there’s all kinds of new conflicts that can emerge,” Omar said. “It is a hard thing to encourage people to return when we don’t have a clear answer on protection and security.”

McGuire was hopeful that deeper economic ties between countries in the Middle East will, over time, “have a positive impact on political relations between those countries.”

The World Bank uses financial support to encourage a human rights agenda. Consequently, according to McGuire, “with Jordan and Lebanon…we [the World Bank] for the first time are providing no-interest loans or concessional loans to a middle-income country.”

The World Bank supports countries taking in migrants and strengthens their institutions to mitigate the strain associated with humanitarian efforts. In September, the World Bank approved a $400 million assistance package to support Jordan. McGuire said, “both Jordan and Lebanon had relatively high debt loads, and they were doing a public good…in absorbing so many refugees who were fleeing Syria.”

Omar, while emphasizing the need to invest in effective solutions, asserted “there is nothing more permanent than temporary solutions.”

World Bank research indicates that, on average, refugees tend to remain in their host countries for a period of about nine years. This shows that refugees will form a semi-permanent presence, and can begin to contribute to the economic development of their host country, said McGuire.

Omar said investing in the success of traditionally marginalized groups constitutes an investment in the future. “We know from lessons learned that investing in women, investing in youth, and investing in minorities is a strategic thing to do. It’s not only a human rights and necessary thing to do, but it’s very strategic for us,” she asserted.

The panelists agreed that empowerment of the individual is a crucial element of institutional change. Schroeder emphasized the concept of a “bottom-up solution,” a political response to conflict that originates with the people, facilitated by new technological capabilities.

The widespread access to technology and the global dimension of the Internet facilitates the formation of a global community invested in finding a solution to the refugee crisis, said Schroeder. He said that, with technology, “you can reach so many people, and put so many answers and solutions into more peoples’ hands [more] quickly and cheaper than ever before.”

Schroeder said that “this has less to do about the technology except as an enabler to something very, very powerful…it unleashes bottom-up solution-making in a way that we couldn’t talk about before”

Bottom-up solutions are based on “people on the ground who have the greatest stake in solving the problems that we’re talking about,” according to Schroeder. He said, “we’re not talking any longer about people as problems, but people as assets to be unleashed.”

Through engagement, facilitated by technology, people affected by conflict can conceptualize a brighter future. “We’re not just talking about fixing a crisis now…we’re actually helping a whole new generation think about a vision for a future, a sense of hope,” said Schroeder.


Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council. 

Image: From left: Jessica Ashooh, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force, moderated a discussion with Matthew T. McGuire, the US executive director at the World Bank Group; Manal Omar, associate vice president of the Center for Middle East and Africa at the United States Institute of Peace; and Christopher Schroeder, entrepreneur and author. (Atlantic Council)