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Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System

By Alexander Betts and Paul Collier




This is an important book about the global refugee crisis, and a platform for debate, for two reasons: it is bitterly critical of current arrangements; and purports to offer a better approach. Two questions then arise. Is the criticism justified? And is the alternative viable? Let’s find out.

The book is written by two Professors at the University of Oxford, Alexander Betts, Director of the Refugee Studies Centre, and Sir Paul Collier, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government. The core argument is that the refugee system is broken, in its institutions, policies, and actions; and that a better option would be to invest in job creation close to where refugees and displaced people originate. Tellingly, the cover image is of a boatload of refugees making the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean. As an alternative, the authors say,

‘(the) book has four big new ideas: . . . the right ethical focus is the duty to rescue the displaced from the disruption to normal life generated by their flight from home. . .  the best places for safe haven are those that are easy for the displaced to reach, and rich countries should make it financially feasible for these haven countries to take them. . . . the best way to restore normality is for refugees to be able to work, so jobs should be brought to the haven countries . . .  the economic support needed for refuge can be used for the dual purpose of incubating the post-conflict recovery.’ (Pgs 188-9)

The argument rests on a description of the current and allegedly dysfunctional refugee system, rooted in ideas and institutions set up in the aftermath of the Second World War: the creation of the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1949, and, in 1951, the adoption of the Convention on the Status of Refugees. This is a system that Betts and Collier say was designed to deal with population movements in post-war Europe, but is now applied to victims of conflict around the world: ‘time has passed the refugee system by: it is now in a time-warp’.  (Pg 10)

The key criticism is that the UNHCR ‘model’, the authors say, mainly involves keeping people in camps where they are unable to work – and that partly for this reason, and partly because the organisation is consistently under-funded, camps are not good places to be. UNHCR has other options in its tool-box: repatriation, resettlement, and integration. However, ‘in 2015, fewer than 2 per cent of the world’s refugees received access to one of the(se) durable solutions’ (Pg 8). Instead, some people stay in camps, some move to urban areas, and some attempt perilous journeys to new places. Indeed, ‘around the world, these three options represent the impossible choice with which we present refugees: long-term encampment, urban destitution, or perilous journeys. For refugees, these options are the global refugee regime (emphasis added).’ (Pg 8)

Perilous journeys are the object of special concern, and the authors repeatedly mourn the loss of life. The root cause, however, lies in policy failure, and in what is described as the wrong-headed balance between ‘head’ and heart’. A long chapter tells the story of the Syrian exodus to Europe, casting blame on pretty well all the actors involved, especially the European Union, and, though acknowledging good intentions, Chancellor Angela Merkel: ‘political responses were so inept that they ensured a mounting crisis. Policies have lurched back and forth between the headless heart and the heartless head’. Thus, it was irresponsible to create a free movement area (Schengen) without proper border policing, to manage the agreed Dublin procedures badly (for example with respect to registration of new arrivals), and not to put in place a burden-sharing system for dealing with refugees. In effect, ‘the weakest-link problem was to be solved by the rule: if you let them in, you keep them . . . incontrovertibly, a rule had been adopted which favoured the most powerful member countries’ (Pg 63).

Further, opening the borders created a surge of refugees, which accelerated when it became clear that the opening would be temporary:

‘As the numbers rose and the border chaos deepened, it was evident to anyone not in thrall to their own rhetoric that the situation would not be permitted to continue. Regardless of the generous signs saying ‘welcome’ held by young Germans at Munich railway station, and regardless of Chancellor Merkel’s Obama-style refrain of ‘We can do this!’, border controls were sure to be reimposed. Would-be migrants around the world could readily tell that it was now or never.’ (Pg 88)

. . .

‘In trying, heroically, to meet a duty of rescue, Germany inadvertently created a source of temptation, encouraging more people to embark on dangerous journeys. . . The most poignant aspect of this inadvertently opened door was that families in troubled countries around the world seized an opportunity to send their children unaccompanied to Germany.’ (Pg 109)

In practice, the surge consisted largely of young men, and affluent ones at that:

‘Young single males were far more willing to take those risks than middle-aged couples with a dependent family. The photographers of the exodus knew that the most marketable images were of children, so those were the photos that appeared in the media. But in reality most arriving Syrians were single young men as families adopted household-level strategies of sending onwards those most able to find work. Individual photos portray a glimpse of a truth, but collectively, by skewing what is portrayed, they can create a false impression. The move to Germany was selective by education, gender, and age, but most obviously it was selective by income. Places purchased from a people-smuggler were expensive and so attracted the affluent rather than the most vulnerable.’ (Pg 118)

The response to the perils of the sea crossing was to organise rescue missions, especially on the sea between Libya and Italy, but this made the problem worse, incentivising people-smugglers to provide an even worse service. ‘Inadvertently, (the rescue service) was providing a free service to the people-smugglers. . . The reductio ad absurdum of Mare Nostrum would have been for the Italian navy to run a free ferry service from the coast of Libya to Italy.’ (Pg 69)

To add insult to injury, receiving refugees in Europe was (is) expensive. The authors report that ‘for every $ 135 of public money spent on an asylum-seeker in Europe, just $ 1 is spent on a refugee in the developing world.’ The costs are often charged to aid budgets (legitimately under DACDevelopment Assistance Committee (of the OECD) rules for the first year): in one case, that of Sweden, ‘in order to defray the cost of the migrants who had reached Sweden the government halved its aid budget. In effect, millions of very poor people around the world were going to pay for the Scandinavian-level benefits offered to the thousands fortunate enough to have reached Sweden.’ (Pg 88)

And, finally, the long term effects of the European response to the refugee crisis are harmful to Syria’s recovery.

‘Around half of all Syrians with a university education are now in Europe. Syria has been gutted of the people who will be needed to rebuild its institutions and economy. The recovery of a future post-conflict Syrian society has been retarded . . . Inadvertently, the exodus of young Syrians triggered by Chancellor Merkel’s generosity of spirit may have inflicted significant long-term losses on the poor majority of Syrians whose lives will depend upon Syria’s long-term prospects.’(Pg 200)

There is, Betts and Collier argue, a better way – and it applies not just to Syria, but to refugee situations around the world. There are two main strands.

First, it is essential to separate true refugees from economic migrants. The former have a right to refuge, the latter do not: ‘were the international community to be too intellectually lazy to distinguish the quest for refuge from the desire to migrate, a vital need which it is manageable to meet would get drowned in a tidal wave of would-be migrants.’ (Pg 30) This is the first of their so-called big ideas.

Second, the way to solve the problem is to break out of the humanitarian mind-set and invest in making it possible for refugees to work, both within the camps and outside. These are the other three big ideas. In Jordan and Ethiopia, this means creating industrial parks where both locals and refugees can find work. In Uganda, it means giving refugees plots of land. In Central America, an older case, it meant rural development. In all these cases, the opportunities are created close to home, in haven countries, and are properly supported by donors. The projects and programmes provide a bridge to long-term development when the conflict ends. But they operate on a small scale:

‘In retrospect it is now widely accepted that the failure of the international community to support the haven countries at an appropriate scale and in a timely fashion was both morally shaming and a catastrophic practical mistake.’ (Pg 76)

It is easy to see why this set of solutions might be attractive to Western politicians wanting to limit migration, but there is more to the argument than simple expediency or self-interest. The authors are at great pains to explore the ethical underpinnings of the analysis: there are sections on rights, on compassion, on solidarity, on need; on the right (or as it turns out not) to migrate. There are ‘thought experiments’ and historical analogies. It is not enough, then, simply to dissent: the analysis need to be examined.

In fact, there appear to be vulnerabilities, or at least areas for debate.

First, the characterisation of the refugee regime and of UNHCR has been criticised, by Benjamin Thomas White, another academic who works in this field. He claims that Betts and Collier misunderstand the 1951 Convention and greatly underestimate UNHCR’s commitment to reform. It has, for example, said that camps ‘should be the exception and only a temporary measure in response to forced displacement’. Indeed, three quarters of the 65m refugees and displaced people are not in camps.

Second, the description of the surge resulting from the opening of the German border has also been questioned by a group of German researchers. They argue that detailed statistical analysis, combined with an understanding of how refugee movements develop, suggest that the surge began before Chancellor Merkel opened the borders. The main causes were that the war worsened, aid agencies cut rations, the prospects of being able to work in Turkey and Lebanon receded, and also the situation worsened in Afghanistan. The authors conclude that: ‘Ultimately, the debate about Merkel's refugee policies centres on the following question: Would the chancellor have been able to slow down or stop the refugee wave if she had done things differently? The answer has to be no.’ Similar findings, casting doubt on the 'surge narrative', have been reported by Jessica Hagen-Zanker and Richard Mallet for ODI.

Third, some will wonder why the ‘deal’ between the EUEuropean Union and Turkey to restrict movement is not more heavily criticised, not least, despite some improvements, for restrictions on the right to work.

Fourth, there might also be questions about the strong assertion that Syrian refugees in urban areas receive no help at all: they clearly do, though not enough, as ODI research by Veronique Barbelet and others has shown.

Fifth, although it is true that hosting refugees is expensive, and, many would agree, an unjustified charge on aid budgets, it is also true that measures to deter refugees are equally costly. ODIOverseas Development Institute (London) research suggests that € 17 bn was spent by Europe between 2014 and 2016, to try and reduce migrant  flows.

Sixth, there is a debate about whether rich countries can simply ‘buy themselves out of a problem’ by giving aid to haven countries. Their actions have been shown to have ‘ripple effects’, discouraging low and middle income countries from accepting refugees. Resettlement remains an important tool in the UNHCR tool-box.

Seventh, another issue is the enthusiasm for creating manufacturing jobs in Special Economic Zones. This is an argument that Paul Collier has made before, following the earthquake in Haiti. That experience, not very successful (see here, here, and here), suggests a certain caution: special zones which provide infrastructure and services, can play a part in boosting manufacturing (see e.g. here), but are challenging in fragile environments. There is also an issue of scale in relation to need. ODI research has confirmed that long-term livelihood support, for example for Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, is a long slog: 'many people continue to find it difficult to pursue decent, fulfilling and relevant livelihoods'.

These objections notwithstanding, some elements of the Betts and Collier argument seem well-founded:

  • First, that there is a difference between economic migrants and refugees, with the latter having an uncontestable right to rescue which the former do not possess. There is an extended discussion of this in Chapter 4 of the book.
  • Second, that the right to refuge does not convey a right to choose where to seek refuge (this is a point that has also been made by another Oxford Professor, David Miller, and one which is highly relevant to debate about the failures of Dublin or attitudes to refugee camps in places like Calais). As Betts and Collier observe, ‘the right of entry to somewhere cannot be turned into the right of entry to everywhere’ (Pg 114). This principle, however, does not trump all others, for example in relation to family reunification.
  • Third, that refuge close to home should be a practical option.
  • Fourth, that the opportunity to work should be prioritised;
  • Fifth, that haven countries should be protected from excessive cost and instability;
  • Sixth, that rich countries should accept a much greater level of financial burden-sharing (and also, though this is not discussed in the book, participate fully in resettlement programmes); and
  • Seventh, that relief principles should be rethought to build a bridge to development when the conflict ends. (It is interesting to ask, in the case of Syria, what budget allocations donors are making for reconstruction when the war finally ends – on that see my proposed Compact with the People of Syria, here).

On this basis, returning to the question at the beginning of this review, the core criticism of the book seems justified, that the overall refugee regime needs to be better designed, better funded, and more effectively and consistently operated. And, of course, linking relief and development, a long, long-standing theme of all research on emergencies of all kinds, should receive much higher priority (see e.g. here and here).

Finally, at the time of writing, in May 2017, the Syria national and regional humanitarian appeals for 2017 amounted to $US 9bn. Of this, only $US 2.45 bn had been pledged, equivalent to about 27%. Where is everyone?

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