Book Review: “Refuge – Transforming a Broken Refugee System”, Alexander Betts and Paul Collier


“Refuge –Transforming a Broken Refugee System”, Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, Allen Lane imprint of Penguin Random House, 2017

This book seems very salient given the first asylum seeker boat in 5 years has made it to Australian shores. We see the same repetition of the asylum seeker politics of the recent decade – calls for processing of asylum claims by advocates versus a quick removal to Nauru suggested by Minister Dutton. But are there logical and rational answers for Australia and other countries that have yet to be considered to this most vexed of issues? The reason why this book was “unputdownable” for me is that it is an interdisciplinary analysis of complicated issues, a useful framework for refugee advocates seeking to influence the broad public, and an effortless read.

Betts is a political scientist and the Director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford while Collier, also at Oxford and a former Director of the World Bank’s Research Department, has African development and economic expertise. Responding to the policy failures of recent years, they draw on history, case studies and experiments, statistical, political and economic analysis, and ethics, to analyse the global refugee system, and tell us what good policy looks like.

The book’s argument is that the system’s post-WW2, Cold War origins are not fit for purpose. This is due to their Eurocentric institutions and treaties (with room for multiple interpretations), based on political asylum (not flight from danger), and providing temporary (not longterm) protection in refugee camps (without work, movement or education freedoms.) There are defenders of the structural/legal aspects, but the 3,000 deaths at sea and political chaos around the one million refugees who arrived in Europe in 2015, suggests an inflexible path dependency which stifled creative responses to a soluble problem. The authors’ view is that this was a European crisis not a global crisis, and a crisis of politics not of numbers (the EU only comprises 500 million people).

For illustration, from 2015 data they report an average USD1 spending per capita of public money on refugees in the developing world (but less than 10 percent of the four million Syrians in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan camps receive any international support.) This compares to USD135 per European asylum-seeker. How much this has since changed I don’t know, but the neglect of the 90 percent of longterm refugees is a hopeless response and wastes millions of lives.

The ALP platform promises $450 million in funding to the UNHCR and a larger humanitarian intake. With a hugely reduced US contribution, how funds can be best allocated between development and humanitarian assistance is even more crucial than ever. As crisis is the opportunity for reform, Labor should consider the success stories in Uganda, Mexico, Belize and Jordan reported here, and other proposals in this book.

The authors frequently repeat three overarching principles as the rock-solid, foundational elements of a good policy, namely the humane duty of rescue, sustained autonomy and an eventual way out. These are respectively: “ensuring that people in distress have rapid access to their most fundamental needs”, “enabl(ing) people to help themselves and their communities, particularly through jobs and education” and “no refugee to remain indefinitely displaced.”

Reform needs more effective structures and management, including contingency planning and greater control, requiring a changed mindset from those who control the aid purse-strings.

This also means fewer restrictions, and providing assistance and technology to allow the refugees’ energies and talents the scope to define their future and become economic assets to their host society, not longterm and disgruntled victims in camps. Outside, in better connected urban areas is usually where the action is, with the globalised world now enabling many more types of organisations and creative relationships which allow refugees to become active subjects.

The authors analyse the unintended consequences of the Merkel decision to open the German door, which they say contributed to Brexit, the rise of the far-right in Europe, and a virtual closure of European borders.

They debunk other conventional wisdoms and prescriptions held dear by many refugee advocates (including myself).

There is much here about why an extension of refugee rights to migration and choice of destination should not automatically follow from their human right to protection. One consideration is refugee demographics – almost half of university-educated Syrians, and a quarter of those who completed secondary school, have gone to Europe. When the conflict ends, and most do, Syria could end up with an educational profile akin to the poorest countries, setting development back by decades. There is a balance of individual rights and social rights, according to context.

In Australia we have seen cynical disregard of refugee rights and the Refugee Convention itself, with little redress available. We cannot count on enlightened social “influencers” to be our successful guardians of enlightened policy – 12 Australians of the Year protested with little result. From press reports and the latest opinion polls, we can expect that the “achievements” of Dutton and Morrison on refugees and borders will be desperate political weapons used freely over coming months, despite the lack of boat arrivals. The polling for some time suggests we are stuck with a large number of Australians who won’t agree to refugees coming by boat and are susceptible to fear and loathing – a contagion which may be transferable to other minorities or issues to degrade our society. But in Australia the longterm negativity towards boat arrivals coexists with a longterm positivity towards migration and the humanitarian program, so we should be able to switch at least some of the former group if we can uncover the hidden “shy Tory” doubts, and get a message to them.

So the election talk in the public space provides an opportunity for supporters to have another go at a well-crafted set of messages to win over some of the fence-sitters to a reasoned and evidence-based policy. The explanatory narrative in this book provides nuance by referencing refugee context and our enlightened self interest. Replacing the fear factor with trust means responding to the imagined loss of sovereignty with policy coherence and supporting citizens’ expectations of continued amenity in the important areas of their lives – jobs, housing, access to education and infrastructure.. Most people want to feel good about themselves and like social solidarity. There should be no reason why they feel advocates reject their priorities, or are from a different “tribe.”


Kevin Bain reviews refugee books at Independent Australia, and has compiled a Reading Guide for Mornington Peninsula Human Rights Group

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