International refugee policy is a mess. Driven by knee-jerk gesture politics from left and right, it has little to do with the real needs of those fleeing persecution and more to do with the toxic internal debates of wealthy western countries. Meanwhile, millions of refugees are either trapped in camps with no control over their lives or live on the margins of society, subject to exploitation with no legal protection.
A new book, Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System, by the migration expert Alexander Betts and the economist Paul Collier, proposes a radical reworking of the international policies that got us here.
They argue that the structures for dealing with refugee crises are rooted in the aftermath of the second World War, when humanitarian assistance, in the form of food and shelter, was required for millions of people displaced by global conflict.
The need for food and shelter for refugees remains, but the system fails to provide any solution to the question of what to do with millions of people who are displaced for years or even decades by conflict, persecution or state failure.
It also takes little or no account of how refugees might be encouraged to return home, and participate in the reconstruction of their societies, if peace and stability are restored.
In Europe the problem has become more pressing since the Syrian civil war sent a wave of migrants through the Balkans
In Europe the problem has become more visible, and more politically pressing, since the Syrian civil war sent a wave of migrants through the Balkans and across the Mediterranean. But to address it properly, according to Betts, we have to understand where the refugees really are.
"Ninety per cent of the world's refugees are in developing countries," he says. "Sixty per cent are in just 10 host countries: Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, obviously, but also countries like Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. If we can find solutions in those countries, it's not only the morally correct thing to do; it also speaks to the enlightened self-interest of governments around the world that face the onward migratory consequences of neglecting the human rights and needs of refugees in those countries."
Ninety per cent of refugees are in developing countries. Sixty per cent are in just 10 host countries
Betts, who is professor of forced migration at the University of Oxford, spent his 20s working with United Nations relief agencies. “I was enormously inspired by the humanitarian work that was being done,” he says. “But the challenge with large bureaucracies is they’re very slow to respond to changing circumstances. A big organisation like the UN Refugee Agency, with over 8,000 staff, doesn’t necessarily have the ability to respond to the real world.”
In any case, he agrees, UN agencies can’t change from within. The governments that fund them have to look for changes in the model. “Of course, the problem is that many of those governments are currently under fire from their own electorates and there’s very little capital to be got in European countries at the moment from talking about migration, other than in a negative way.”
Although the ethical imperative of giving shelter to those whose lives are in danger is always paramount, the book is scathing about the Willkommenskultur, or "welcoming culture", advanced by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in 2015, and by panic-stricken European policies that lurched "between the headless heart and the heartless head".
Betts believes that the potential now exists for change precisely because of the pressures western leaders feel on immigration. “One of the arguments we make in the book is that refuge should be separated from the politically toxic debates about immigration and globalisation. Refuge is something that should require compassion, not fear.”
But isn’t the reality that the experiences of the past three years have shown that the lines between economic migrants and refugees are at best blurred, at worst discredited?
“One of the big changes we’ve seen is that globalisation and technology create more opportunities for people to travel further distances,” Betts says. “So you get mixed migratory flows of people seeking greater economic opportunities, as well as people fleeing human-rights violations and extreme deprivations. And you get shades of grey in the middle.
“The images we see from the Balkans and the Mediterranean are images of migration. So people associate refugees with images of boats and of people in Calais. That’s not representative.
"The reality of the experience for most of the world's refugees is of either being stuck for decades in camps, where they are denied the right to work or any freedom of movement, or else in cities such as Amman, Beirut and Nairobi, where they often fall into destitution."
The reality of the experience for many of the world's refugees is of being stuck for decades in camps
What’s also not representative, he says, is the profile of the people who make it into Europe, who are more likely to be young men with some financial resources. “Asylum processes have lost legitimacy in part because many of the people coming through those processes are not coming from the worst situations.”
The answer, Betts believes, is to give agency and hope to the millions of refugees who are still in countries bordering their own. “You can bring refugees to jobs, or you can bring jobs to refugees,” he says, pointing out that a Syrian refugee is much more likely to find suitable employment in an economically and culturally similar country such as Jordan than in a high-skill economy such as Germany’s. Such refugees are also more likely to return home if the conflict ends.
Impetus for change
On the face of it this seems a pragmatic and practical proposal that should find broad favour with donor countries where political sentiment is turning against accepting refugees. But is that enough to combat institutional inertia in the international agencies?
“Crisis creates impetus for change,” Betts says. “We’ve seen change in institutions in the past. The international monetary system changed in 1971, with the end of the gold standard. The world trade system changed at the end of the cold war. At moments of crisis there is an opportunity to engage and change. What should have happened over the last two years was the refugee system’s 1971 moment. It hasn’t happened, in part because of inertia, in part because of a lack of vision.”
Ireland's combination of the hostel system, slow bureaucracy and ban on working is very dehumanising
There will always be a need for wealthy countries to shelter some of those fleeing persecution and violence. Although Betts and Collier don’t look at particular national cases, their overall observations have more than a little relevance to a system such as Ireland’s one of direct provision.
"I'm not an expert on Ireland, " Betts says. "But the combination of the hostel system, the very slow bureaucracy and the fact you're not allowed to work before a determination takes place is very dehumanising for people. One of the main points in our book is that the key to humanising people is to give them autonomy. The key to autonomy is having access to jobs and, through that, to education and training."
Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System is published by Allen Lane