I have to begin by commending the recent public debate on Israel’s refugee policy. It is heartwarming to see so many Israelis calling for an open-door refugee policy and talking about what temporary protection should look like. The last few weeks have shown that refugee policies are deeply rooted in our national identity. They trigger strong reactions only because they tell us something about who we are and who we want to be. We want to be compassionate.
We want to be on the right side of history. This is why many Israelis want to see their country opening its heart and arms. But, I want to put compassion aside and instead make the case for enlightened self-interest. I want to propose that Israel should accept refugees, not only for the sake of offering solace to those in need, but also because it is good for Israel.
This takes me back to Uganda, where I had the privilege to work at a time of mass refugee influx. When war became unbearable in South Sudan in late 2016, Uganda welcomed about 1 million refugees arriving from its neighbor to the north. With a GDP per capita as low as $733 in 2016, Uganda was not only willing, but demonstratively happy, to take in a massive influx of people fleeing from war.
Uganda’s refugee policy is considered among the most progressive in the world. In recent years, Uganda opened its borders to about 1.5 million refugees who were accepted upon entry without individual investigation of their claims. Refugees in Uganda are allowed to work, open businesses, move freely, choose their place of residence and cultivate land. They are also integrated into national service provision including health and education services, while in some towns I have visited, schools and hospitals serve more refugees than Ugandans.
Uganda’s compassion does not stop at refugees from neighboring countries. Uganda hosts refugees from Somalia, Burundi, Ethiopia and Eritrea, with which it has no borders. Uganda’s refugee policy recently caught international attention when last summer, at the request of the US, it welcomed refugees from as far as Afghanistan.
Why is it that Uganda is so open to refugees?
Ugandan politicians say that they open their borders because know the experience of displacement from their recent past. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was a refugee in Tanzania before he overthrew Obote with the help of refugee militias. Ugandan Minister of Foreign Affairs Jeje Odongo recently wrote, “few peoples of the world know better than Ugandans what it is to be a refugee.”
But, this is not only the talk of politicians, I have heard it in remote Ugandan towns, where locals referred to refugees as their neighbors, their family and their brothers. Indeed, the border between South Sudan and Uganda separates not only people of the same tribe, but also distant family members, who on both sides have hosted their neighbors in times of crisis.
Beyond solidarity lies something else: Uganda hosts refugees because Uganda benefits from refugees. In what way? Firstly, refugees directly contribute to the economy. Uganda’s 1.5 million refugees not only have spending power, but also help meet employment needs. Furthermore, a study by the Oxford Refugee Studies Center found that 40% of refugee-owned businesses in Kampala employ Ugandan nationals, 65% mostly cater to Ugandan customers, and 83% mostly buy goods and services from Ugandans.
Secondly, refugees indirectly contribute to the economy by creating jobs in the humanitarian sector, as well as in education, health, finance and infrastructure development. A population of 1.5 million refugees is catered to through a myriad of services, which create job opportunities for teachers, social workers, health professionals and others. Schools need to be built, wells need to be drilled, mouths need to be fed. All these are markets which Ugandans happily tap into.
Thirdly, Ugandans benefit from development financing that comes with refugees. Local authorities benefit from donor investment, including from the World Bank and other development actors who support the infrastructure necessary to host a large number of refugees, and allow Ugandans to enjoy better services as a result.
Minister Odongo wrote on the subject of accepting Afghan refugees, “welcoming refugees is not just a humanitarian decision – we know the value they can add to a host country.
“They are essentially Ugandan citizens,” he remarked, “contributing to and strengthening our economy.”
Economy Minister Orna Barbivai similarly commented this week that refugees should not be seen as a burden and called to give them work permits to meet Israel’s labor needs, including about 140,000 open jobs.
I commend the words of the Minister of Economy and others who voiced a commitment to hosting refugees and providing them the right to work. In the long-term, allowing refugees to work and thrive will not only save millions of dollars to be spent on welfare and humanitarian assistance, but will also generate revenue from taxes, maintain workforce needs and contribute to economic growth.
It is my hope that if not out of compassion, at least out of self-interest, policies would be adopted that allow refugees to work and open businesses, no matter where they are from. This should not be seen as a detriment to the Jewish state. On the contrary, it is the most Israeli and most patriotic response in the face of displacement.
The author is the CEO of ARDC Israel, a writer and a humanitarian worker, who has worked in in refugee settings for the past eight years in Israel and East Africa.