Refugees need autonomy and jobs, not shelter: but how?

Paul Collier and Alexander Betts try to answer a hugely important question: How to provide rescue, autonomy and a route out of limbo for millions of refugees, sustainably and at scale?

Currently the 22 million refugees worldwide (on a total of 65 million displaced) have three choices: long- term encampment, urban destitution or undertaking a perilous journey. The authors believe we can and should do better than this. So do I.

This is all the more urgent, as fragility – the main cause of forced migration – is increasing worldwide. There are roughly five explanations for this increased fragility:

  • The stability of the Cold War is gone: the MAD theory doesn’t apply anymore
  • The spread of democracy didn’t come with checks and balances. This only resulted in extra fragility.
  • Revolutions spread faster thanks to technology and social media.
  • The resource boom: resource extraction increases the risk of violent conflict
  • Islamic extremism

In combination with the lack of popular support for asylum in Europe the picture becomes clear; the current model isn’t sustainable anymore. Most people suppose all refugees live in camps. This is not the case: almost 90% of all refugees live outside camps. Camps were a solution for host countries to abdicate financial responsibility to the international community. They – as Betts and Collier note somewhat cynically – also provided jobs for the more and more redundant UNHCR. Just one figure: the number of UNHCR staff members rose from 500 to 9.000 between 1950 and 2016.

The global refugee regime emanated from its postwar European origins, when it served to host the displaced people form mainly Eastern Europe. It’s a different world now. Syrians come in families – as most war refugees do. Waiting for peace to return, which, as we know, can mean waiting for or up to a decade. Food and shelter are not their first priorities, but restoring family ties are. And once that goal has been reached: autonomy and being able to earn a living.

Unfortunately that’s not the focus of the international community. Nor is it Europe’s. The European answer to the refugee disaster lurched between the ‘headless heart’ (Merkel’s “Wie Schaffen das”) and the ‘heartless head’ (the closing of the borders).

The current system doesn’t help refugees, for it is undermining their autonomy and dignity. It doesn’t help host communities, transforming potential contributors into a disempowered generation in their midst. And it doesn’t help the international community, leaving people indefinitely dependent on aid less capable to build a life or rebuild their country of origin. Which is increasing difficulty in the case of Syrian refugees, as half of university educated have migrated to Europe.

A more clever, humane and positive approach to the refugee crisis would be to leave the realm of humanitarian aid and to approach it as a development question. This is not only an economic matter, enabling development and work opportunities need to be supported by the right regulations and institutions. Governments and donors need to step up.

Collier and Betts also touch upon the moral side of the refugee debate. Whereas refugees have the right on protection and a route to autonomy, they state that this is a qualified right. There is no right to determine where this protection is given. The salient feature of being a refugee is the need for protection, not the need to migrate.

Moreover, the authors will disappoint those who put their trust in international treaties: they are like fairytales. Once you stop believing in them, they die. Which was the sort of the Dublin treaty: the moment Merkel withdrew her support, it was a dead letter.
Furthermore, Merkel’s decision to welcome a million people into Germany, is the object of  the author’s scorn, as it had a couple of serious consequences:

  • Thousands died in the Mediterranean
  • The public mood in countries as Sweden and Germany turned drastically
  • Because Germany, in a dramatic reversal of its open door policy, closed its borders to  refugees, a deal with Turkey was needed

And as grande finale: it was the last push the Brexit campaign needed.

Unfortunately, the clear analysis isn’t followed by practical solutions, as promised in the preface. Which leaves this book being a great introduction to the current refugee crisis and the role of the international community in trying to solve it, but less of a guide for clever policy.

Refuge – Paul Collier & Alexander Betts, 288p. Penguin Books, 2017