Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System

Book Review

Reviewer: Alexander BETTS, COLLIER, Paul

Publisher: London: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2017 ISBN: 9780241289235
Author's page: George Eyong Tabe

 Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System

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It is often said that you cannot approve nor criticize meat you have not eaten. From a first view, the meat might seem to contain all the ingredients to make it taste best. But after the first bite, you think something is missing to make the meat tasty and delicious. The same could be said of Alexander Betts and Paul Collier book entitled REFUGE Transforming a Broken Refugee System. From the hard cover, a visible boat carrying refugees on the high seas, probably with Syrian or African refugees on board, seems to provide an in-depth analysis of the recent 2015 European refugee crisis. Unfortunately, this is not the case, as further indicated below.

Alexander Betts is a United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) employee. He is also Leopold Muller professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs and a Fellow of Green Templeton College at the Oxford University. His primary area of professional expertise has always been migration, in particular the international politics of asylum and humanitarianism with a geographical focus on Sub-Saharan Africa.

Paul Collier previously worked as a director of Development Research Group in the World Bank. He is a specialist of political, economic and developmental predicaments for poor countries. Currently, he is a Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government and a Professorial Fellow of St Antony’s College as well as the director of the International Growth Centre and the director of the Centre for the Study of African Economics, Oxford. His primary area of professional expertise is economic growth in Africa, governance in low-income countries, the economics of civil war, etc.

Both the courses Betts and Collier teach at their respective faculties and their own bibliographies testify to the authors’ knowledge in the field.  With the choice of the title itself, the authors presenting themselves as ‘thinkers rather than doers’ (p. 22) touches upon a rather ambitious goal - to present the suffering and hardship refugees are incurring. They provide the main obstacles to a sustainable refugee crisis management. In their own words, the authors believe refugees ‘need and should be entitled to expect three things: rescue, autonomy, and an eventual route out of limbo'. Unfortunately, this has not been the case as most refugees are deprived of these benefits. Therefore, the authors seek to search for a means on ‘how the world can provide these things sustainably and at scale’ (p.18).  The key purpose is to ‘restore refugees to their proper place’ (p.22), that is, to provide adequate humanitarian assistance to refugees ensuring their rights are respected and their needs provided in a timely manner.  

 

The book features three parts by two different authors. The individual sections are organized both chronologically and thematically to avoid undue repetition and to make the collection read more like a study by a single author than a compilation of essays by diverse specialists. In the introductory analysis of the research thus far conducted on refugee transformation, Betts and Collier state that never had mankind experienced a 'wide range of displaced persons in the world’ (p. 22). All these happening in a civilized world, with massive developments and prosperity fostered by globalization. Furthermore, the authors concede that refugees are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance and 'yet we are turning our backs on them' (p.100). The authors go on and argue that morality has lost its meaning and as a result ‘we live in disturbed world’. (p.13). The authors' purpose, therefore, 'is to restore refuge with well-defined task accepted by a majority of mankind’ (p. 22).

The first part is entitled 'Why is There a Crisis?' Here the authors analyze the Syrian refugee crisis and their tragedies - the role of the EU and its institutions, denouncement leading to deportations from Greece. They present the number of refugees and displaced persons in the world, comparing them with the            situations in the aftermath of WWII. The focus here is to seek answers as to why things have become chaotic, that is, the horrible situations in which refugees are being treated today. The authors identify violence and fragility to be behind the refugee mass influx to Europe in 2015. Nevertheless, the authors do not provide us with a typology of violence for a better understanding.

Under ‘What Drives Displacement and Refuge’, the authors make a link between refuge and security. According to the authors, the absence of security means flight for refuge. The authors support their argument with three case studies: Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and the Spanish Civil War. Nasty events (e.g., Jews extermination, Spanish civil war, etc.) that occurred in these countries 'created huge civilian dislocations' (p. 26). This assumption cannot be 100% true for refugee flight. The flight of Jews as acknowledged by the authors occurred in a time when there was no hierarchically superior nor coercive power that could resolve disputes, enforce law and order. Their argument is totally irrelevant for the mere fact that in today's unipolar world dominated by the US, coupled with the UN Security Council Resolutions, global governance and the international community, the absence of security cannot lead to chaos.

The second part bearing the name 'The Think' deals with a reminder of our moral obligations. The aim here is to construct a new global refugee approach 'not based on camps, court decisions, and panic. Rather they should be based on needs and how they could best be met’ (p. 201).  Here the authors provide genuine analysis on how refugees were treated in the past (before and after WWII). The key argument and concern here is that 'the generosity of spirit in response to refugees is not a new story to mankind, neither is it an implausible phenomenon that modernity has to invent’. Displaced Germans, Poles, Armenians and many others during WWII were given shelter by other states. The authors are therefore asking: Why should that be a big deal today? Why are states reluctant and unwilling to accept refugees? And what is our moral obligation to all these? These questions are troubling and inhumane, which is why the authors think 'the plight of Syrian refugees fleeing violence require our generosity of spirit’ (p. 100). Furthermore, the authors believe 'political theorists’ defiance to reach a consensus on refugees’ sufferings (p.104) make matters even worse. This theoretically interesting and politically important argument made by the authors is regrettably short.

The third part, entitled 'History, the Remake', looks back at history. Here the authors seek to provide an analysis of an approach that would have worked out in Syria. They seek to grasp if their approach would also work in different parts of the world - Kenya for instance. They performed a comparative analysis and came out with final conclusions that their approach did not work in Kenya, simply because the Kenyan government has no sympathy nor toleration for refugees, especially Somali and South Sudanese refugees. The government relies on 'encampment policies prohibiting refugees from leaving camps and denying them access to work' (p. 220).

Initially, I indicated that Betts and Collier's book lacked some ingredients to the final product.  Even sophisticated analyses have their weaknesses and should be subject to improvement. The first concerns the author’s research design choices that may have biased some of the results or rendered them prematurely obsolete. I refer to the unavailability of the source of the collected data, e.g. '700 people drowned crossing to Lampedusa' (p. 14). Neither do they provide the reader with concrete definitions of the many terminologies in their book; the origin of the world refugee for instance and the way different countries perceive refugees. The authors define a refugee as 'someone who is outside her or his country of nationality and faces a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion' (p. 16). But according to the Colombian government, 'the conflict between the Colombian government and armed Marxist guerrillas that began in the mid-1960s in Colombia left over 3 million people as refugees in their own country’. (UN Regional Information Centre for Western Europe 2017). This therefore means that a refugee must not always be outside but also within. This Colombia case is a clear contradiction to what the authors claim. This is just one of the generalisations in the authors' work.

Another problematic embedded in the book is that the authors simply have sympathy to anyone claiming to suffer for persecution as a refugee, which absolutely seems inconsistent. According to the Australian Immigration Minister ‘the Government has taken a decision in relation to those people who are fake refugees’ (Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton: 2017).  The authors work lacks an in-depth analysis on refugees entirely. For example, they fail to analyse and provide answers to why some states like Israel would never accept refugees from other countries or regions and why Syrian refugees would not seek refuge in Israel (a nearby country) but would rather choose Europe, a more complicated and riskier route.

Paul and Collier did a great job to provide a clear picture and events that took place in the 2015 EU refugee crisis. However, the key weaknesses, in my opinion, is that much empirical analysis is missing in the book.  The subchapters contain many headings completely without definitions and are hard to grasp.  This work could serve well as an appropriate textbook for the introduction of studies in the given topic but would not be quite suitable for experts dealing with refugee studies.

2018 - Volume 12, Issue 3