Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World, by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier

| September 2018
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Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World, Alexander Betts and Paul Collier (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 288 pp., $18.95 paper.

This book should be read by anyone interested in understanding the global refugee crisis or in thinking productively about what can be done to help the approximately sixty-five million forcibly displaced people on the planet who live in a political climate that is either indifferent or openly hostile to them. It is a clearly written analysis of how we got to where we are, what the current situation is, and where we ought to go from here.

One of the main achievements of Refuge is that it helps us to adopt a much broader perspective on the current refugee crisis and what it might take to adequately address it. For example, many are inclined to see the increase in asylum applications in Europe since 2015 as the most significant aspect of the ongoing crisis. Of course the influx to Europe is significant in many ways, given that it represents a logistical, legal, and moral challenge to the European Union and its founding principle of solidarity. Yet by focusing exclusively on this set of problems, we ignore what the authors refer to as a “parallel tragedy”—that is, the neglect of 90 percent of the world’s refugees who remain in the developing world.

This neglect is not only intellectual but also financial; the world spends $75 billion a year on the 10 percent of refugees who make it to the West, and $5 billion on the other 90 percent who remain in developing countries. This represents a spending ratio of $135 per refugee in the developed world to every $1 per refugee in the developing world. Once we take seriously this parallel tragedy, it becomes clear that refugee policy cannot focus solely on asylum or resettlement, but must also consider developing policies that would help all refugees secure what the authors consider to be the three needs of refugees: rescue, autonomy, and a route out of limbo.

Refuge makes three additional contributions that are valuable for scholars and policymakers to recognize. To begin, Betts and Collier reconceptualize the reasons people seek refuge in the first place. There is a tendency among politicians and the public alike to want to draw a sharp line between refugees (those fleeing persecution by a state) and economic migrants (those migrating due to poverty or the desire to improve their economic circumstances). The authors show why this is both anachronistic and misleading. It is anachronistic because persecution is no longer the main reason people flee their countries. Indeed, the authors argue that this was only ever true for Europe following World War II, and thus the refugee definition reflects an unfortunate Eurocentrism.

In the twenty-first century people are fleeing danger that can often be traced back to failed states. While failed states are usually poor, it is not poverty that is driving people to leave, but insecurity and the inability to maintain a minimal level of dignified existence. The distinction is misleading because it implies that we can neatly draw a line between those fleeing danger and those fleeing extreme economic deprivation, which is often (if not always) linked to government failure. In sum, it is state fragility, not persecution, that accounts for the majority of refugee movements today.

Second, important parts of the book are spent detailing the inadequacies of the global refugee regime, a regime that is based on refugee policy made for another era and designed for European, not global, needs. The result is that refugees today “are effectively offered a false choice between three dismal options: encampment, urban destitution, or perilous journeys. For refugees, these inadequate options . . . are the modern refugee regime” (p. 55). Refugee camps are still the model for refugee protection, even though most refugees choose to live in urban settlements. When refugees do settle in urban spaces, the UNHCR is not able to effectively help them, and so they remain more or less on their own. Resettlement, the golden ticket for refugees, is accessible to less than 1 percent of refugees. Therefore, asylum policies that say states will grant asylum to people who are able to physically make it to their territory have the effect of encouraging people to risk their lives to come directly to Europe or to developed states elsewhere. For this reason the authors insist that the international refugee regime must be rethought.

Third, perhaps the book’s most innovative contribution is the authors’ proposal for new economic policies that can produce positive results for all parties—refugees, host states, and the developed world. Recall that 90 percent of refugees remain in developing countries, either in urban slums or squalid refugee camps. Though there is no one-size-fits-all approach, Betts and Collier suggest that individual countries can tailor economic policies in ways that allow refugees to participate in the economy, thus increasing their autonomy and improving the economic situation of the host states. One promising example is the creation of Special Economic Zones, where countries put in place business and trade laws that are different from the rest of the country in order to attract foreign investment. The authors suggest that Europe could support the creation of these zones by making trade concessions conditional on the employment of refugees, who would then gain the right to work.

Such trade policies could, for example, help support Syrian businesses in Turkey that are no longer able to function at home. The core idea is that a responsible refugee policy must allow refugees the economic rights to which they are entitled and the autonomy that comes along with such rights in ways that are beneficial to all. This may be a tall order, but I think the authors are right that the “care and maintenance” model of refugee protection is no longer either morally or economically acceptable, and refugee policy must connect to economic policy. It is clear that there is much more that Western states could be doing to alleviate the misery of being a refugee in the twenty-first century, and crafting economic policies that support rather than undermine this goal is clearly an important step.

While I find myself convinced that helping refugees requires not only aid but thoughtful, mutually beneficial economic policies, I also wonder how the authors’ suggestions connect to larger issues of global capitalism. How would the nonmigrating global poor respond to the opening of Special Economic Zones with special trade policies aimed at helping refugees? I imagine they would wonder why there were not such economically beneficial policies aimed at helping, say, women and children living in desperate poverty. In short, I would have liked to have read more about how refugee economics would intersect with larger questions of global justice. Nevertheless, Betts and Collier have provided ample arguments for their position, and any serious consideration of refugee policy will need to include their views.

—Serena Parekh


Serena Parekh is associate professor of philosophy and Director of the Politics, Philosophy, and Economics Program at Northeastern University. She is the author of Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Displacement (2017).

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Category: Book Review, Issue 32.3, Migration

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