Imagine this: when conflict happens, and people flee, they know that – when they reach safety – they will be welcomed sympathetically and efficiently assigned to a safe, stable country, according to an agreed quota. Each country has a system to integrate new arrivals seamlessly into society, with a bank account, an initial stipend and support to find employment.
Imagine schoolchildren learning about a bygone age when refugees were treated differently: confined to open-air prisons; prevented by walls and soldiers from reaching a country where they might work and earn; and, if they slip through, living in fear of the law and resented by locals. School trips go to 2016-era refugee camps, preserved for posterity, and kids are amazed that previous generations could have been so hard-hearted and fearful of their fellow humans.
Perhaps such a world will exist, one day. But with President-elect Donald Trump having campaigned on suspicion of Syrian refugees, it feels more distant than ever – and even in optimistic moods, I cannot imagine it by 2030. So what, realistically, might the refugee situation look like then?
Syrian refugees turned CEOs
It will be different. In particular, Syria is likely no longer to loom so large. Perhaps many of today’s Syrian refugees will be back home, rebuilding. Many will have made successes of themselves in the West – they’ll be CEOs, often employing fellow Syrians, as refugee businesses have always done. So, if Syrian refugee flows continue in 2030, Syrian-run businesses will help mitigate the problem.
Refugees from other current hotspots – Somalia, South Sudan, Afghanistan – have lower average education levels, so their entrepreneurial success stories may be fewer by 2030. But they will exist, and these communities will be more organized than they are now and better equipped to help their countryfolk if the same countries are still producing refugees.
Even if these conflicts have settled down by 2030, others will surely have arisen. Climate change will increasingly spur conflict over resources, and also create refugees directly, as subsistence farmers abandon their failing land. Some projections of climate change envisage a billion people being displaced by mid-century. Many will be in Africa. Most will head north. By 2030, migrants might be knocking on Europe’s door in far greater numbers than today.
Authoritarian regimes, fences and warships
Extrapolate some current trends and you can paint a dystopian picture for 2030: populist, authoritarian regimes ratcheting security ever tighter; warships patrolling the Mediterranean, sinking boats that ignore warnings to turn back; use of third-country detention centres with horrific conditions, as with Australia and Papua New Guinea; refugees being stripped of their valuables, as has happened in Denmark; fences running the length of Eastern Europe. You can envisage terrorist and criminal networks preying on masses of desperate people with nothing to lose.
Extrapolate other trends, however, and there are grounds for hope. In 2015, a photograph of Alan Kurdi changed public attitudes and policy almost overnight; by 2030, communications technology will bind the world even more closely together. Today’s adolescents, steeped in social media activism, will have reached positions of influence by 2030, and the successful integration of today’s refugees will make negative stereotypes and media fear-mongering harder to sustain.
But if public attitudes have become more compassionate and generous, how might that manifest in policy? While fully open borders may ideally be the long-term goal for humanity, by 2030 this is likely to remain logistically implausible. It is realistic, however, to hope that countries will more evenly share responsibility for accepting refugees. Perhaps trade deals could become a way to make this happen: imagine if Germany, for example, pushed for EU negotiators to stipulate conditions that trade partners must join the effort to solve the refugee problem.
Seizing the economic opportunity
We can realistically hope, by 2030, to be better at tapping refugees’ huge economic potential. Jordan’s government, for example, is currently experimenting with letting Syrian refugees work in defined economic zones. This should benefit both refugees and the Jordanian economy. It should also be easier to work online in 2030, undermining traditional arguments against letting refugees work: that they’ll out-compete locals for jobs, and won’t ever want to return home.
By 2030, I hope the Arab world will be taking its fair share of Muslim refugees; with the new administration in the United States, this has become even more urgent as a moral imperative. More countries could be offering quotas of scholarships for the most academically talented refugees, as the government of Argentina recently did for 1,000 young Syrians through my organization Blue Rose Compass. These highly motivated kids are now learning Spanish to be able to take up this opportunity; that wouldn’t be necessary if they were going to universities in Arabic-speaking countries, many of which already import immigrant labour from other parts of the world.
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And wealthy countries could, by 2030, be doing more to minimize the journeys which refugees undertake. Investing in technology to mitigate the impacts of climate change could prevent many people from becoming refugees. And building the capabilities of countries to manage unexpected population flows, internally or from their neighbours, in the event of conflict or crop failure, could incentivize refugees to remain local rather than try to reach another continent.
In 2030, we might look back on today’s refugee crisis as having given us the opportunity to experiment, learn and plan for the greater challenges ahead. Will we have used that opportunity wisely?