Hundreds of thousands of people are flowing out of the Middle East. War has pushed them from their homes and they are moving by bus, train, boat and by foot to safer places.

Where can they go? Europe is being very generous. But established metropolises have their limits.

Could refugees be accommodated in cities set up specifically for that purpose? Dedicated “cities of refuge” have a long history.

The Old Testament God told Moses to set up six cities of refuge.

French philosopher Jacques Derrida expanded the idea in his work On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, addressing the asylum seeker flows of last century. “Could the City, equipped with new rights and greater sovereignty, open up new horizons of possibility previously undreamt of by international state law?” he asked.

Even modern macroeconomics has a strand of debate relevant to cities of refuge. Paul Romer — an acclaimed economist at NYU — has spent the last six years pushing the idea of “charter cities”.

His vision is of dedicated cities that can help pull people out of poverty, and is largely based on the experience of Hong Kong in the 20th century. Because of its different set of “institutions” — in a legal, democratic and cultural sense — Hong Kong was able to become an economic powerhouse. Furthermore, Hong Kong was able to act as both a spur and a model for economic change in China.

Romer proposes anybody would be able to migrate to these charter cities. His vision of welcoming independent cities free from corruption and failed economic policies is a compassionate and inspiring one. It lends contemporary weight to the old idea of cities of refuge.

But the practical issues in establishing even one charter city have been prohibitive. In Honduras, Romer has severed ties with a fledgling “charter city” that is already showing a tendency to shy away from transparent decision-making.

The cities, depending on their composition, may also tend to ghettoisation and imported ethnic tensions. The question of where to find sufficient money and land is also very tough to solve. The influence of private-sector providers of capital could be compelling.

Whether you call them charter cities or cities of refuge, it seems the dream of starting cities from scratch has as much chance of coming true as the Old Testament God does of popping down and solving all our problems with a smiting or two.

Except for one fact. There already exist vast cities of refuge full of millions of asylum seekers.

We call them refugee camps. But they are not just for brief sojourns under canvas. People can spend decades — their entire lives, even — in refugee camps.

If we can salvage one idea from the (fairly problematic) cities of refuge/charter cities idea, it is that these permanent refugee camps can be more than an asylum. They can do more than subtract the threat of persecution. With the right institutions they can add a layer of empowerment, through education, skills development, work, financial stability, community.

Improving refugee camps seems, perhaps, like a drab and pragmatic solution. It’s not as uplifting as resettling families in a shiny apartment in Stockholm. But it is morally compelling because it will affect far more people.

Sweden — the most generous of all European nations per capita — accepted 30,000 asylum seekers last year. The total number of refugees living in camps worldwide is hard to estimate, but the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are over 20 million asylum seekers and refugees throughout the world. They may be there for years as their applications for asylum are processed, or because they wish to return to their home country, eventually.

Their lives, until then, ought not be a blank space. They should be as rich and as representative of real life as possible.

Refugee camps always feature markets. Inhabitants will, for example trade official UN rations for the traditional diets of their home country. But markets in some camps are black markets because host-state regulations prevent asylum seekers working. These black markets show how vibrant the entrepreneurialism and spirit of refugees can be.

Where finance and law allow it, refugee camps can use the energy and ambition of displaced persons to make the camps better. In the Basse camp in Gambia, microfinance supported a displaced Sierra Leonean baker to establish a business. The Red Lion bakery ended up employing other refugees and — by buying in ingredients — supporting the host country economy as well.

The UNHCR does a great deal to try to provide education in refugee camps, but the Syrian crisis is stretching budgets for the very basics. The World Food Programme announced in July it was cutting food aid for Syrian refugees in half due to budget constraints.

Some refugees are pondering returning home rather than remaining in the vast camps in Jordan.

Fixing camps so they are the most positive environment they can be is a global imperative. Australia can also do more closer to home. Our detention facility in Nauru is expected to close its school and send pupils to Nauru schools. The refugees we send off to places like Cambodia have their chances of good life cruelled further if they are forced to try to build on substandard education.

Among the many actions required to solve the global refugee issue, we ought to provide refugee camps with the features required to live a decent life.

*You can donate to the UNHCR at this link. The author is donating his fee for this article.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey