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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

We live in disturbed times. There are more people displaced than at any time since the Second World War. Most of these 65 million uprooted people remain within their own countries, but nearly a third – over 20 million – had no alternative but to cross a border. When they did, they became refugees.

They are fleeing mass violence in chronically fragile states like Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Refugees are not like other migrants: they are not moving for gain but because they have no choice. They are seeking safety abroad.

For the most part, refugees stay in the countries close to home. Almost 90 per cent of refugees are in havens in the developing world, and just ten of these countries host around 60 per cent of the world’s refugees. Several of them – countries like Iran, Ethiopia, and Jordan – have been repeat hosts over decades. These havens are not atypically generous: they are simply located in a ‘rough neighbourhood’.

Until recently, the world largely ignored the plight of refugees. The default response was for rich countries to wait for an emergency and then contribute money to the United Nations humanitarian system. This money was spent on establishing refugee camps providing food, clothing, and shelter until people could go home. These camps were always designed as if they were just for the short term. Invariably refugees lack the right to work or move freely; but being out of sight, they were out of mind. This might have made sense if refugees were able to go home relatively soon. But since the end of the Cold War, the average duration of exile has been over a decade and so the default response has been hopeless. Condemning millions of people to wasting their lives, this approach has contrived the rare folly of being both inhumane and expensive.

Then suddenly in April 2015 something changed. Something happened that was so alarming that the world woke up. There had been no overnight escalation in the number of refugees in the world. What changed was that, for the first time, refugees moved spontaneously in large numbers from the poorer regions of the world to the richest. With mass violence in Syria since 2011, some 10 million people had been displaced: 6 million within their own country and 4 million to neighbouring countries. Initially most had not moved further afield than Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. But since there are limited opportunities for Syrian refugees in those countries, the dynamic began to change.


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.

More about the authors

Refuge

Alexander Betts (and others)

'Betts and Collier offer innovative insights into how to more effectively meet this challenge, with an important new focus on international solidarity and refugee empowerment' Kofi Annan

'Refugees and policy makers need practical answers to what is now a global crisis. This valuable book represents the kind of can-do thinking that we need to see' David Miliband

An eye-opening account of the migrant crisis which shows why our global refugee regime is broken and how it can be fixed

Europe is facing its greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War, yet the institutions responding to it remain virtually unchanged from those created in the post-war era. As neighbouring countries continue to bear the brunt of the Syrian catastrophe, European governments have enacted a series of ill-considered gestures, from shutting their borders to welcoming refugees without a plan for their safe passage or integration upon arrival. With a deepening crisis and a xenophobic backlash in Europe, it is time for a new vision for refuge.

Going beyond the scenes of desperation which have become all-too-familiar in the past few years, Alexander Betts and Paul Collier show that this crisis offers an opportunity for reform if international policy-makers focus on delivering humane, effective and sustainable outcomes - both for Europe and for countries that border conflict zones. Refugees need more than simply food, tents and blankets, and research demonstrates that they can offer tangible economic benefits to their adopted countries if given the right to work and education.

An urgent and necessary work, Refuge sets out an alternative vision that can empower refugees to help themselves, contribute to their host societies, and even rebuild their countries of origin.

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