Sixteen years ago, Alexander Betts worked at a refugee reception center in the Netherlands, welcoming people from all over the globe to receive asylum in the country. The experience was an eye-opener for Betts, who didn’t know much about the “refugee question” at the time, he says in a talk at TEDxVienna.
The people he met at the center didn’t match up with the impression he had of refugees from popular media. He thought refugees were supposed to be helpless people to be passed from state to state, problems, a burden. Instead, the refugees he met were talented, skilled, interesting people who educated him and offered much to the Netherlands right when they arrived. Betts met doctors, lawyers, nurses, even an Olympic athlete who introduced him to table tennis.
This great difference between what Betts had heard about refugees and the reality he faced at the Center ate at him, he says. He needed to know why that rift was so wide. So, nineteen-year-old Betts decided to dedicate his academic career to searching for the answer. He now leads the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University.
And through data, Betts has been able to compose a more accurate picture of the refugee as citizen, dispelling popular myths about refugee life. “What I started to do in my research,” he says in his talk, “is to stand back and ask, ‘Can we gather some data? What’s the evidence that refugees have to be a cost to society? Is there another world we can imagine in which we document their positive contributions?’”
In Betts’s talk, he shares information from his study on Ugandan refugee populations, a country where refugees have socioeconomic freedoms that many other countries do not offer to those seeking asylum. Findings from the study went against five popular refugee myths, Betts says. They are:
Not true. In Uganda, refugee settlements are not “remote, isolated, distant from broader society,” Betts says. Instead, his team found that many refugees in camps are synced with local and global economics, importing materials from places as far as the Netherlands and India to make goods for local markets and selling these goods to locals and refugees of other nationalities.
Nope! In Kampala, Betts found that refugees create jobs — opening up economic opportunity to others — with 21% of refugees employing others and 40% of these employees being Ugandan nationals.
Again, not true. Though refugees are often perceived as farmers and petty traders, Betts says, his team found that refugees in Uganda held a wide variety of skill sets, occupations, and levels of income. “We found over 200 different independent income-generating activities among the population we surveyed … Being a refugee didn’t necessarily make you poor.”
Not at all, Betts says. “We found almost ubiquitous moblie phone use,” he says in his talk. In rural refugee camps, “roughly 70% of rural
refugees regularly use mobile phones to communicate,” his team reported, and — in Kampala, urban refugees reported higher rates of Internet use than the general population.
“On the contrary,” says Betts, “In our survey, only 1% of households we explored had no source of independent income-generating activity. They wanted to work, they wanted income and they wanted opportunities from the economy.”
What does Betts’ Uganda study mean for the rest of the world? That giving refugees economic opportunities — the right to work, the right to employ — is a powerful thing. And that matters in the Syrian refugee crisis.
“There are over ten million displaced Syrians, over four million Syrian refugees,” Betts says. “But contrary to popular belief … they’re mainly just in three countries: Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon. Over a quarter of the population [of Lebanon] is now Syrian refugees. And many of these people are struggling for economic opportunity.
In Jordan, refugees have the formal right to work, but in practice, work permits are prohibitively expensive. The Za’atari [refugee] camp, for instance, doesn’t allow formal economic opportunity. It flourishes below the radar, in the informal sector, but people don’t have the formal right to work. There are entry controls that limit people’s opportunity.
And many people now in Za’atari are seeking to move onward toward Europe or even, as a last resort, returning and risking their lives by going back to Syria.”
But returning to a war zone shouldn’t be the “best” option for a refugee. If countries accepting refugees give refugees opportunities quickly and with flexibility, both refugees and their host countries will benefit, Betts says.
For more, watch Betts whole talk below:
Insight from the TEDx office — why we like this talk:
The speaker has extensive experience studying — through research with a specialized group at Oxford University — the topic of his talk: the economics, policy and outcomes of refugee hosting in countries across the globe. He presents his idea — that refugees are actually a boon to societies, not a burden — alongside detailed analysis of his findings, with supporting visuals, stories and data. His talk is clear, direct and passionate.