5. Corporate Exploitation of Global Refugee Crisis Masked as Humanitarianism

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

According to a June 2015 United Nations report, sixty million people worldwide are now refugees due to conflict in their home nations. The UN report indicated that during 2014 one out of every 122 people was a refugee, internally displaced, or an asylum seeker; and over half of these refugees were children. (For previous Project Censored coverage of the global refugee crisis, see “Global Forced Displacement Tops Fifty Million,” Censored story #14 in Censored 2016: Media Freedom on the Line.)

While Syrian refugees account for the largest number (an estimated 11.5 million people), other places such as Colombia, parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia have large refugee populations that remain largely unreported. According António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees at the time of the report, “We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before.”

Although the extent of the global refugee crisis has been covered in the corporate media (including, for example, the New York Times and the Washington Post), the exploitation of refugees has been less well covered. In February 2016, Sarah Lazare published an article on AlterNet that warned of the World Bank’s private enterprise solution to the Syrian displacement crisis. “Under the guise of humanitarian aid,” Lazare wrote, “the World Bank is enticing Western companies to launch ‘new investments’ in Jordan in order to profit from the labor of stranded Syrian refugees. In a country where migrant workers have faced forced servitude, torture and wage theft, there is reason to be concerned that this capital-intensive ‘solution’ to the mounting crisis of displacement will establish sweatshops that specifically target war refugees for hyper-exploitation.”

According to a World Bank press release by its president, Jim Yong Kim, “We are exploring the creation of special economic zones (SEZs), and encouraging investments in municipal projects and labor-intensive work.” According to World Bank materials, the goal is to help alleviate hardships faced by refugees in Jordan by developing five SEZs along the Syrian border. “We are using a holistic approach to addressing the refugee influx through private sector development,” Lazare quoted one World Bank spokesperson as saying. However, as Lazare also noted, despite her multiple attempts to obtain more information from the World Bank on the proposed SEZs, specific details remained scant; furthermore, she reported, the history of Jordan’s existing special economic zones (operated under a variety of names) is marred by human trafficking, torture, and wage theft, “often in the service of U.S. companies.”

“At a time of mass human displacement from ongoing wars,” Lazare wrote, “we should be asking hard questions about the political implications of encouraging Western companies to target and profit from the labor of people violently uprooted from their homes.” The World Bank program “raises deeper questions about the global responsibility to address the large-scale human harm the West played a role in unleashing” in Syria. Myriam Francois, a journalist and research associate at SOAS, University of London, told Lazare that the development of SEZs in Jordan “will change refugee camps from emergency and temporary responses to a crisis, to much more permanent settlements.” The SEZ proposals, Francois said, are “less about Syrian needs and more about keeping Syrian refugees out of Europe by creating (barely) sustainable conditions within the camps which would then make claims to asylum much harder to recognize.”

Describing an agreement between Turkey and the European Union to keep millions of refugees from entering Europe as “a deal between devils,” Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report said that Turkey has “cashed in on the people it has helped make homeless.” As Al Jazeera reported, Turkey accepted $3.3 billion from the European Union (EU) “in return for checking the flow of refugees across the Aegean Sea.” Turkey reportedly asked for double that amount to cover the costs of dealing with the refugees. Earlier in March 2016, European Council president Donald Tusk had warned refugees from Asia and Africa, “Do not come to Europe … It is all for nothing.”

Noting that “the great bulk of Turkey’s refugees are victims of Turkey’s role in the war against Syria, in alliance with Europe and the United States and the royal oil aristocrats of the Persian Gulf,” Ford described human trafficking in Turkey as “on a scale not seen since the Atlantic slave trade.”

In addition to the EU money, Turkey has also sought admission to the European Union—and, with this, the right for 75 million Turks to enter Europe without visa restrictions—as a condition for controlling its refugee population. Thus, according to Ford, Turkey has engaged in a “vast protections racket trap,” effectively agreeing to protect Europe from further incursions by “the formerly colonized peoples whose labor and lands have fattened Europe and its white settler states for half a millennium.” However, Ford concluded, “Europeans will never accept Turkey into the fold, because it is Muslim and not-quite-white.”

Corporate exploitation of the global refugee crisis is underreported in the popular and corporate press, and often subject to distorted pro-business coverage, as in a September 2015 Wall Street Journal article on the number of small businesses and large corporations that are finding ways to profit from the flood of migrants. Unlike Lazare’s AlterNet report, the Journal’s coverage dealt only with Syrians who had managed to migrate to European countries. According to the Journal, private equity groups across Europe were pursuing a new investment opportunity with “promising organic and acquisitive growth potential,” the management of camps and services for refugees. “The margins are very low,” the article quoted Willy Koch, the retired founder of the Swiss company ORS Service AG. “One of the keys is, certainly, volume.”

Sarah Lazare, “World Bank Woos Western Corporations to Profit from Labor of Stranded Syrian Refugees,” AlterNet, February 24, 2016, http://www.alternet.org/labor/world-bank-woos-western-corporations-profit-labor-stranded-syrian-refugees.

Glen Ford, “Turkey and Europe: Human Trafficking on a Scale Not Seen since the Atlantic Slave Trade,” Black Agenda Radio, Black Agenda Report, broadcast March 8, 2016, transcript, http://www.blackagendareport.com/turkey_europe_human_trafficking.

Student Researchers: Mark Nelson (Sonoma State University), Sean Donnelly (Citrus College), and Elizabeth Ramirez (College of Marin)

Faculty Evaluators: Anne Donegan (Santa Rosa Junior College), Andy Lee Roth (Citrus College), and Susan Rahman (College of Marin)