Looking for Solutions to the Syrian Refugee Crisis
October 27, 2015 Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War & the International Forum on Globalization
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the armed conflict inside Syria has driven more than 3 million Syrians from their homes. (Some estimates place the number of refugees at more than 4 million). Many of these huddled masses now struggle to survive in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Some resettlement options may seem far-fetched but -- with rising numbers of global refugees -- new solutions are needed.
Looking for Solutions to the Syrian Refugee Crisis Gar Smith / Environmentalists Against War & the International Forum on Globalization
BERKELEY, Calif. (October 27, 2015) -- According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the armed conflict inside Syria has driven more than 3 million Syrians from their homes. (Note: some estimates place the number of refugees at more than 4 million). Many of these huddled masses now struggle to survive in refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Others have chosen to attempt a dangerous and costly trek by land and sea in hopes of finding new lives in Europe. Meanwhile, another 6.5 million Syrians remain "internally displaced" within the embattled nation.
Lebanon has admitted 1.3 million, Turkey is expected to host 1.9 million by year's end, Jordan has accepted more than one million and Germany has pledged to receive 800,000. The US (whose air strikes and arming of anti-Assad forces on the ground have aggravated the refugee crisis) has agreed to admit a mere 10,000.
With Syria's neighbors, the Balkan States and European nations bearing the brunt of the desperate flood of refugees streaming out of Syria, mounting criticism has been directed at the Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. These oil-rich states of have been accused of ignoring the plight of Syria's displaced millions. Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, has called the inaction of the wealthy petro-states "shameful."
The criticism seems especially apt in the case of the Saudi monarchy. The two major financial backers of the rebels fighting to overthrow Syria's elected leader, the brutal president Bashar al-Assad, are the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia, however, accuses its critics of lobbing "false and misleading" accusations, claiming its has opened its doors to 100,000 Syrians. The UAE has offered a similar rebuttal. But these claims are themselves somewhat misleading. The UNHCR estimates there may be as many as 500,000 Syrians in Saudi Arabia -- but they are not registered as "refugees." None of the Gulf States have signed onto the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Instead, a limited number of Syrians have been offered residency status in Saudi Arabia, which, according to a 2012 royal decree includes "the right to free education, healthcare and employment."
Still, granting residency status to 100,000 refugees does little to address the scale of the humanitarian need. Lebanon's new refugee community is now equal to more than 25% of its own native population.
By contrast, in Saudi Arabia (with five times the population of Lebanon) the number of resettled Syrians is equal to just two percent of its population. The Saudi monarchs and the rulers of the UAE apparently prefer to continue spending hundreds of millions of dollars to support overcrowded refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan.
Syria's Migrant Crisis: CNN
A Humanitarian Hadj: Welcoming Pilgrims from Syria
Saudi Arabia recently demonstrated its ability to host millions of foreign visitors. During the annual religious pilgrimage known as the Hadj, the Saudi royal family created a vast tent city in Mina, a town located about three miles from the holy city of Mecca.
A large valley containing 160,000 tents (100,000 furnished with air-conditioning) became what Al Jazeera has called "the largest tent city in the world." According to the Saudi Central Department of Statistics and Information claims the country was able to house 3.2 million religious pilgrims 2012.
Mina's canvas metropolis consisted of an expanse of white tents installed side-by-side in a low-lying valley. Most of the tents were designed to accommodate about 50 people (at an average price of $500 per pilgrim). If each tent were filled to his 50-bed maximum, a refugee site the size of the Mina settlement would be able to accommodate as many as five million refugees.
Saudi Arabia has proven that it can accommodate millions of Muslim refugees and it certainly has the wealth to do it. And, like the population of Saudi Arabia, the majority of the people fleeing Syria are Sunni Muslims.
Saudi Arabia's Tent City at Mina
But there is a roadblock to the Saudi Solution. The conservative rulers in Riyadh are fearful some of the Sunni refugees might be sympathetic to the Islamic State, which is openly critical of the Saudi regime. Similarly, in Egypt, the military coup leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has rejected calls to admit Syrian refugees out of concern they many have links to Egypt's elected-and-overthrown Muslim Brotherhood.
As Leonid Bershidsky noted in a report for Bloomberg, the Gulf's oil-rich nations "may not really be suitable destination for the asylum seekers." Owning to the tentative nature of the "Suni-Shia balance," Bershidsy explains, "Syrians don't feel welcome in Saudi Arabia and the other petro-states and therefore don't want to go there."
Finally, as the mass trampling deaths of more than 1,100 pilgrims at the Mina encampment in September demonstrated, Saudi authorities lack the ability to operate these large encampments safely.
So where else can these tides of refugees seek an expeditious solution to their desperate, stateless plight? One surprising answer just might be: Inner Mongolia.
China's Ghost Cities: Shelter for the Dispossessed?
One of the great engines of China's recent economic growth has been an unprecedented spasm of capital-intensive investment in infrastructure and urban development. A new generation of Chinese millionaires has spent the past decade pouring their excess capital into the construction of high-rise housing complexes, large administrative buildings, verdant parks, monumental public sculptures, sprawling sports facilities, elaborate arts complexes, extensive freeway systems and extravagant airports. In short, entire cities.
The problem is, while building hundreds of these new cities created the illusion of growth, many of the gleaming mega-cities failed to attract either residents or businesses. As a result, many now stand empty or largely unoccupied. Today, each of these desolate and deserted inland outposts risks becoming an economic albatross. Still, China's building mania continues.
Never before in history has any nation built as many bridges, roads and airports as China. The country now is online to build additional new cities capable of housing as many as 3.4 billion people. Critics point out that this is more that double China's current population.
China's Xinhua news agency reports all 12 provincial capitals are planning to construct "a total of 55 new districts, with one alone planning 13." Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, plans to build a new metropolis covering 58 square miles (an area larger than the existing provincial capital). The Peoples' Daily has openly challenged the practice of constructing more of these grandiose new cities under the assumption "If you build it, they will come."
They Didn't Come . . . but Others Might
Welcome to Ordos, the largest unoccupied city on Earth. Built from scratch in China's Inner Mongolia, Ordos's Kangbashi New Area was blueprinted to house more than a million residents. As of 2014, only 2% of the buildings were occupied and housing prices had plummeted from $1,100 to $470 per square foot.
As emotionally stressful and taxing as the current refugee crisis has become, it is only a foreshadowing of a greater crisis that is certain to come. War is a disruptive force that can drive millions from their homes but now climate change threatens to drive even more millions from largely equatorial and Third World nations devastated by crop failures, famine, floods and disease.
World leaders have failed to adequately plan for families fleeing wars in Syria and Sudan. The world has not yet begun to consider how to cope with a rising tide of environmental refugees that may soon be on the move around the planet.
Perhaps China could play a critical role in meeting not just the immediate crisis triggered by wars in Syria and Sudan, but also the specter of a worldwide climate emergency. It would take some thought, however.
Although these cities stand desolate and unoccupied, many of the empty apartments have been "sold." They were purchased by newly wealthy Chinese speculators who invested in these "ghost apartments" as a hedge against inflation. Compensating these leaseholders could be costly. It would certainly be problematic.
In an article in The Guardian, Owen Hatherley describes these spooky urban outposts as something more than "Potemkin cities set up as property boondoggles." In China, Hatherley notes, the land is nationalized and no one actually "owns" property. Instead, there are leases -- available for up to 70 years.
As Hatherley explains, "it is normal for middleclass Chinese to borrow their way into owning several unoccupied flats, even if they don't have one to live in." The result is less than optimal, in Hatherley's eyes. "Given the government has the power to make and remake cities, why are the results so sad? Copycat 'western' towns, endless Central Business Districts, huge malls; this is urbanization purely for quantity and profit."
Strangely, many of China's silent cityscapes are modeled after foreign cities. There are life-sized ghost-town replicas of cities in Spain, Italy, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom. There is a Manhattan (with Twin Towers still standing), a Paris (complete with an Eiffel Tower), and Hallstat, an Austrian lakeside village (featuring an endlessly looping recording of "The Sound of Music" playing in the background). [See videos at the end of the article.]
Eventually, with Beijing's cooperation, a global Emergency Resettlement Fund (ERF) might be created to help house the world's displaced millions in a selected number of China's empty "ghost cities." The major contributions to the ERF should, of course, come from the countries most responsible for promulgating climate disruption -- i.e., the United States, the Gulf States, and China itself.
China might also be approached to build entirely new "shelter cities" specifically designed to house refugees. (Given China's demonstrated prowess in creating mirror images of foreign towns, local architects and builders might be persuaded to build a new Aleppo in Lanzhou.)
The UNHCR could provide supervision and support to the resettlement sites. China could be reimbursed for hosting the dislocated victims of both war and climate disruption, thereby gaining a return-on-investment for economically dead properties that would otherwise simply drain the national economy.
If China were to rise to the occasion, it would mark an act of generosity unequaled in the recorded span of human history. If history books are still being printed and read 100 years from now (an increasingly dicey assumption), children in the 22nd century might grow up celebrating the story of the Ghost Cities that briefly became Shelters of Peace in a battered and beleaguered world.
As Mao Zedong famously said: "Dare to think; dare to act."
And let 100 cities bloom.
Apartment blocks in Chenggong, Yunnan, China (image: Matteo Damiani)