Review: Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System

Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System is an important and timely book by Alexander Betts & Paul Collier.  Every European is aware of the state of the current refugee system.  Depending on the severity of crisis, the refugee crisis moves in and out of the mainstream media and public consciousness. Social media, in particular, becomes animated with moral outrage demanding immediate action. We are all aware of the stories, the barbed wire fence in Hungary; the sinking ships in the Mediterranean; the great marches across the European continent.  Italy is the current bête noir. With the country buckling under the pressure of relentless migration from Libya, the authorities have threatened to turn refugees back. Generally speaking, this action has been vilified from the predictable corners of society.   What the world needs is a solution and this is an offering brimming with potential resolutions.

The front pages of some of Britain’s daily newspapers showing an image of the body of Syrian three-year-old boy Aylan are pictured in London, on September 3, 2015. The image spread like lightning through social media and dominated front pages from Spain to Sweden.

With a strong grounding in ethics, intellectual history, economics, and moral responsibility, the authors’ strive to be apolitical and provides a practical, long-term approach to solving the Refugee Crisis. Short shrift is given to the moral grandstanding of the left even less time to Merkel’s disastrous policy; they ‘do not preach the moral standards of sainthood.’ These positions are often desperate measures when the situation has unravelled beyond our control,  are completely ineffective and almost always related to romantic

An Unsustainable and Dangerous Model

visions of rescue. Lest we forget, the German policy put the EU under immense strain at its most vulnerable time, was partly responsible for Britain’s departure from the EU and increased the friction between the nations of Europe.  This was also an awful deal for refugees. There was an increase in sexual trafficking, child prostitution, human trafficking, and death. It may have felt good but was incredibly impractical, devastatingly irresponsible and exceptionally dangerous.

Being Worldly

To solve the issue we need understand the world better. Acknowledging that we do not live under a global government but in nation states is a good start, the world ‘is a menagerie states with different interests and different capacities.’ We are a family of nations that at times find co-operation an onerous process.  In that regard, different measures will be required for different regions. Can the methods used to control migration from Easter Europe in 1945 be used in the current Syrian crisis? No. The world has changed and a vast competing array of forces is shaping our world today that simply were non-existent in 1945. We must understand every refugee crisis as unique and be aware that, with the march of technology, the free movement of capital, and increasing globalisation, we have incredible tools at our disposable. There is no reason we cannot solve the crisis but we must be suspicious to a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

What is a Refugee?

We need to define what means to be refugee.  Our current understanding is based on the politics of the early Cold War.  Western Governments were extremely reluctant to return valuable intelligence assets back to the Soviet Union.  In an effort to provide protection, they were classed as refugees, individuals persecuted due to their political beliefs. Persecution, therefore, is key to the status of a refugee. In time, this has included sexual orientation, religious belief, and a myriad other factors. As stated ‘people seeking refuge are not fleeing poverty, they are fleeing danger.’ As you can see, there is a clear gap between fleeing political violence, as in Syria, to defecting from North Korea. There is a great, and someitmes challenging,  discussion about classification.

Who Should We Help and How?

Nobody disputes we have a responsibility to each other and there will always remain a ‘duty of resuce’. But what actions should we undertake? As Germany demonstrated there can be negative consequences. Take the case of Botswana. Relative to its neighbours, Botswana is a prosperous country.  Should Botswana take in everyone fleeing the economic malaise of its neighbours risking its own prosperity? No, it should not.  Do we agree individuals have a right to leave? Yes, but where do they have a right to go? I have a right to leave my house but not to move into my neighbour’s three doors down.  There is a clear blurring of the lines between the right to leave somewhere – shared by almost all nations bar North Korea –  to the right to move anywhere. People do not have a right to move where they want.  Economic migrants are intentionally conflated with refugees. There is a clear distinction. Refugees seek safe havens, migrants seek honeypots. This can be quite morally challenging but the book manoeuvres through this difficult terrain and presents firm conclusions about who we need to help.

How to Help: Development and Empowerment

The book narrows down on another important problem:  our Euro-centrism.  One the current refugee apparatus is too focused on Europe and ineffective at meeting global challenges. We should focus on developing those areas most affected by refugees. The vast majority of refugees live in neighbouring countries. Given their status, they cannot get a job, buy a house, get credit, or build a life. They are perpetually reliant on charitable hand-outs. Where is individual autonomy?  Instead of encouraging people to take perilous journeys across vast oceans we should be supporting them close to their homes, empowering them economically.  Most refugees dream of returning home. For those on the left, they think it is better to integrate an Afghani into Norwegian culture without any difficulty. All they need is our love and compassion. This is errant nonsense. People love their homes. That’s where they want to live, feel most comfortable, and content and we should endeavour to returning displaced peoples’ to a situation as close to their previous state as possible.

Refugee Camp from Space. Some People Spend Twenty Years in Refugee Camps without a Job, Money, or Career Prospects

Instead of languishing without rights in these landscapes of misery, refugees should be given rights, rights to work and contribute to the local economy – gain self worth! Many refugee camps become permanent fixtures on the landscape, generations of families existing hand to mouth without the prospect of a better life. Children are not entitled to state education and end up working informally to support their families. Should we allow the situation in the Syrian camps to deteriotate to such a level that people feel compelled to take enormous risks? We should be giving them the opportunities for a better life. Give them the right to work. By harnessing the power of globalisation, we can turn these camps into sites of empowerment.

Evidence has emerged that the policy of local integration has significant benefits. Uganda which hosts 500,000 refugees has adopted this policy. According to Collier & Betts, 21% of refugees are now entrepreneurs with 40% of their employees of Ugandan origin.  This has been followed in Jordan, a neighbour of Syria that hosts a significant amount of refugees.. Ploughing billions into the camps, they sought to reinvigorate the refugee’s existence, improving their lives in a meaningful way without the inherent risk of crossing the open sea in a dinghy. That is not to say, the Jordanian model is transmittable to Uganda, for example.  Unique demands will call for unique resolutions but it allows for integration, lifting the stigma that comes with being classed a refugee.


This book should be read by everyone interested in the refugee crisis. Bett’s & Collier have written their thesis in an easy and accessible way, a tactic to enhance the reach of the ideas. Each topic is presented logically and in familiar, unambiguous language.  What comes through is the passion of the writers. They care deeply for the lives of others and wish to put an end to the stupidity of the current conversation. It is shot-through with political moralising that costs innocent lives. This is a stimulating evaluation of the current failing and a remedy to an apparently intractable problem.

There is a podcast that goes with this book.

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