Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System

By Marcus S. Hendriks

For every $1 spent on the 4 million Syrian refugees languishing in regional havens, $135 is spent on the 1 million that made the perilous journey to Europe. Meanwhile, 90 per cent of all refugees are being sheltered in the developing world, whilst just five per cent arriving in Europe was sufficient to incite mass panic, anti-immigration public debates, and talk of a “refugee crisis” afflicting the continent.

These are just two of the nonsensical realities regarding worldwide refuge which drove Alexander Betts, Director of the Refugee Studies Centre, and Paul Collier, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government , to write Refuge, which was released a month ago. Their aim, stated simply and nobly, is “to contribute to the search for a more effective refugee system, fit for purpose in the twenty-first century”. This they fulfil with resounding aplomb, and this success owes itself to a combination of essential qualities: exhaustive research; fastidious consideration; apolitical, impartial assessment; and achievable realism. The last of these is rightly recognised by the authors as the most fundamental to bringing about tangible change, as “within the constraints of being thinkers rather than doers, [they] suggest how such a world might go about meeting the needs of refuge”.

Integral to tackling the flaws of a systematic leviathan as enormous as global refuge is a precise and coherent structure. Accordingly, Betts and Collier divide Refuge into three parts. Part one dissects the existing system, explaining why it is ill-fitted to manage refugees effectively. Part two sets out their solutions to these problems. Part three consolidates confidence in their work by re-running an alternate Syrian refugee crisis, with their envisioned enhanced system in place, and demonstrates how disaster might have been averted.


‘Part I: Why is there a crisis?’ identifies compellingly how the cause of contemporary refuge failings is twofold: an archaic international system insufficient for dealing with current demands and circumstances; and widespread inability and reluctance to update this system through practicable and relevant measures. The authors show how global refugee support is enshrined in the UN’s Convention on Refugees, and the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees. This treaty and organisation were founded in 1951 with the primary intention of dealing with the influx of people, who were fleeing the Soviet bloc’s expansion in Eastern Europe, into the West. As such, the founding of international refuge principles was predicated on the politically motivated assimilation by Western powers of people escaping persecution by their ideological enemy.

As Betts and Collier then perspicaciously point out, most of the world’s current 20 million refugees are not fleeing persecution, rather fragile states and internecine conflict. This is far more than a question of arbitrary definitions, for it renders the universal treaty on dealing with these 20 million people outdated. Without a clear formula for whom should receive support, which countries should provide it, and what that support should be, nations are allowed to pick and choose on all three of these counts, to inevitably disastrous effect.

One obvious example of these consequences of an outmoded blueprint is the EU’s shambolic treatment of the influx of refugees from the Middle East. Here again, the authors are ruthlessly pertinent and thorough in highlighting where the mistakes were made and how they came about. They intelligently divide the plethora of errors into two categories: those of the ‘heartless head’ (such as Hungary’s shutting down of its border with Austria); and the ‘headless heart’ (Merkel’s open-border policy in 2015). Although Betts and Collier pull no punches on the EU when they are due, the underlying current throughout part one is that, in absence of any unifying normative guidelines from the international refugee system, individual regions have free rein to deal with them as ineffectually as they do.

The problem thus established, ‘Part II: The Rethink’ develops their solutions. Testament to the monumentally impressive ‘no stone unturned’ approach of this book, this section begins at the beginning by defining the moral impetus of refuge. Are we obliged to help refugees and, if so, to what extent? On this Betts and Collier ultimately come to the conclusion, via intriguing thought experiment and ethical analysis, that we are morally compelled to ensure the safety of refugees, and to provide circumstances as similar to their pre-flight situation as possible. This is most memorably portrayed by the analogy of a young child drowning in a pond. Surely, the authors argue, any able-bodied onlooker is duty-bound to rescue the child, and any affluent passer-by ought to replace the £5 soaked in its pocket, needed for the bus fare home?

This moral fiat is introduced as the first of Betts and Collier’s “four big new ideas” for the worldwide refugee system. The next three are duly announced in the rest of part two. First, the best place for safe haven is that which is easiest for a refugee to reach, and it is then the responsibility of the rest of the international community to support the haven country’s burden. Second, it is imperative that refugees are not treated like grain in a silo, but rather are given the right to work, and a degree of autonomy, whilst waiting to return home. Finally, the economic stability guaranteed to refugees can and must play a vital role in incubating successful post-conflict recovery in their country of origin. In each case, the authors maintain a vigorous, watertight process of proving through evidence, examples and indisputable logic. So apt do all of their recommendations appear that it seems incomprehensible that they have not been made before. But sure enough, these “four big new ideas” really are “new”, and they are certainly “big”.

By now, fully saturated with global refuge knowledge and thought-provoking concepts about how to improve it, the reader is finally presented with a hypothetical trial run of the authors’ ideas in ‘Part III: History, The Remake’. Whilst they admit to “indulging in a fantasy of counterfactual history”, this section is nevertheless further fuel on the blazing fire which Betts and Collier have lit with the piercing insight of their book. They prove how European disaster and humiliation could so easily have been averted with an appropriate system and actions, which would certainly have also served a future, post-conflict Syria better.

The particularly fascinating yet damning point is made that, as a result of migration to Europe only being an option for affluent (therefore normally well educated), young, male Syrians, the war-torn nation has been drained of half of its most highly successful individuals. Such people will be sorely missed in rebuilding Syria’s future, should they decide not to return.

Cutting through the despair, however, the book ends on an upbeat note. For all of the woeful history riddling the international refugee system, steps are being taken in the right direction. In October 2016, the World Bank issued a $300m loan to Jordan to help the country develop and expand its industrial zones (which would be a fundamental component of the authors’ vision for refugee economic autonomy). Ethiopia, another country faced with enormous numbers of refugees, is receiving similar support from the European Commission.

Clearly, then, the world is receptive to change. It is a shame that it took the ramifications of a refugee system in crisis to become Eurocentric before its deep-rooted rot was tackled, but at least things are beginning to show signs of changing. Possibly most promising of all is that these measures are in-keeping with those advocated by Betts and Collier, who have provided invaluable guidance with their recent, seminal book. The world’s key decision-makers would do well to read and absorb Refuge.

Refuge is available to purchase from Penguin Books in hardback for £20.00.

This was originally published at Horizons

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