Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System

An urgent and necessary work, in Refuge, Alexander Betts and Paul Collier explore the question of why our global refugee regime is broken and how it can be fixed


For every $135 of public money spent on an asylum-seeker in Europe, just $1 is spent on a refugee in the developing world

For the first time in its history, Europe received a mass influx of refugees from outside of the European region. During the course of 2015, over a million asylum-seekers would come to Europe. The majority came from Syria but many also came from other fragile states like Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a range of sub-Saharan African countries. At first, the primary route to Europe was the Central Mediterranean: people got in small boats in Libya and travelled across to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Then it became the Western Balkans: increasing numbers of Syrians crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece and made their way on foot towards Germany.

From that April, when 700 people drowned crossing to Lampedusa, the media began to proclaim a ‘global refugee crisis’. But in reality this was a European crisis. And it was a crisis of politics rather than a crisis of numbers. The response was muddled and incoherent; European politicians struggled desperately even to identify the real problem, let alone to find solutions to it. And this in turn led to tragedy and chaos across Europe. During that year, over 3,000 people, including many children, drowned while trying to reach Europe on rickety boats manned by gangs whose core business was migrant-smuggling.

Instead of cooperating on a coherent plan, European governments resorted to unilateral panic decisions, their policies being shaped more by the domestic politics of the moment than the search for collective solutions. Greece became the main reception country, its islands overwhelmed, though few refugees aimed to stay there: instead they moved north. Hungary built a razor wire fence to keep them out.

But Germany’s response was quite different: from the summer of 2015 Chancellor Merkel effectively offered an open door. Unsurprisingly many more came, and not just from Syria. Perhaps Chancellor Merkel had expected other states to follow her lead. If so, the expectation was misplaced: not sharing Germany’s unique history, they didn’t. As hundreds of thousands came to Germany, the domestic political situation shifted radically. Within months of the open door, Chancellor Merkel had backtracked dramatically, returning thou- sands of people caught in transit, to Turkey. As public confidence in the asylum system – intended to distinguish ‘refugees’ from broader movements of people – collapsed, far-right parties gained growing support, and by early 2016 Europe had virtually closed its doors.

But while this catastrophe was absorbing political and media attention, the parallel tragedy was the neglect of the nearly 90 per cent of the world’s refugees who remained in the developing world. The most vulnerable, with no means or desire to travel to Europe, remained in an utterly dysfunctional system. For every $135 of public money spent on an asylum-seeker in Europe, just $1 is spent on a refugee in the developing world. Fewer than one in ten of the 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan receive any material support from the United Nations or its implementing partners. Moreover, most refugees around the world do not have the basic autonomy necessary to help themselves and their communities: they are not allowed to work. They are left dependent on a system that fails them.

When international agencies don’t know what else to do they convene a conference. Despite a series of these high-level conferences convened by the United Nations there is still no clear strategy for the future of the global refugee system.

What, in the twenty-first century, should the world do about refugees? In this book, we seek to answer that question. To get there we start by diagnosis: why is the global refugee system not working today? From that base we suggest what needs to be done to build a system that works.

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