The ‘British Model’: Give Refugees Work

Alexander Betts and Paul Collier's "Refuge" is a work of politically engaged scholarship with both trenchant analysis and original solutions

David Goodhart

This book is a rare and wonderful thing: a work of politically engaged scholarship with a trenchant analysis and original solutions.

It deals with one of the most emotional subjects in contemporary politics — what to do about the world’s growing number of refugees — in a humane but hard-headed way. It thereby, although it does not admit to this, provides ample justification for what one might call the new “British model” in refugee management.

It also provides a devastating critique of Angela Merkel’s reckless welcome to Syrians in the summer of 2015, the implications of which have rippled far wider and more destructively than one might imagine.

And what gives the critique of the refugee status quo extra force is that it comes from two people with impeccable records of concern for the world’s most vulnerable; one might almost say that they write from the heart of the liberal academic establishment (though Paul Collier has a recent record of creative transgression).

Their thesis is relatively straightforward. The world currently has 32 significant “displacement” incidents all emanating from the 40 to 60 states (out of 195) that are commonly described as “fragile”. These incidents have caused 65 million people to leave their homes and 21 million to cross international borders to seek safety (only the latter are technically refugees). Some 90 per cent of the 21 million are in neighbouring, mainly poor, countries such as Iran, Ethiopia, Kenya and Pakistan. Less than 10 per cent are in the rich world.

Fewer than half of the refugees are currently in camps, which first became a feature of the refugee experience in the 1980s, with most of the rest trying to get by in the towns and cities of their host countries. The most visible minority of them try to reach rich countries — as more than a million did in 2015 — to take advantage of liberal asylum laws, flanked by hypocritically impenetrable borders that make sure it is hard to do so. So the options, as the authors put it, are: “Encampment, urban destitution, perilous journey.”

This regime is still essentially regulated by an international convention — the 1951 Geneva convention on refugees — and a UN institution, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), that date from the late 1940s and early 1950s and are no longer fit for purpose.

The 1951 convention with its famous phrase “well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion . . .” requires signator countries to accept refugees if they can prove individual persecution and, above all, not to send them back to anywhere unsafe. In its original form the convention applied only to Europe and was essentially a propaganda move in the Cold War, signalling to Soviet dissidents that if they managed to escape they would not be returned. And the UNHCR is a noble sticking plaster institution that just hands out food and shelter to dependent refugees and is chronically underfunded and too hidebound to think afresh about how to improve the camp experience.

The authors do not call for the abolition of the 1951 convention but they point out how circumstances have made it redundant. The vast majority of refugees are not threatened by individual persecution — though some still are, such as Afghan Nato interpreters or some African opposition leaders — but are rather the victims of conflict, usually civil wars. And most of the countries they languish in are not even signatories to the 1951 convention.

We, especially in the rich West, still have a moral duty to offer protection though it is not quite clear what that moral duty amounts to. It seems to be a variant of what David Miller has called “weak cosmopolitanism”, or the idea that we have a duty to the wellbeing of all other humans, but obligations to them that vary, depending on our moral or physical proximity. 

Where they break with so many of their fellow refugee experts and reporter-moralists is in not insisting that as many refugees as possible should come and live in rich Western countries. They implicitly acknowledge that there are strict limits on the numbers that welfare democracies will accept. But they go further than this and argue that while movement to a rich country might benefit individual refugees, it is not in the interests of the countries they come from.

The world does not just consist of individuals seeking to maximise their welfare but of societies too, societies that need to be rebuilt after conflict has ended. The interests of the majority left behind must be considered too. And, as the authors point out, in many circumstances the most mobile are the most affluent (those who can afford to pay the people traffickers) and the best educated — a dismaying half of all Syrian graduates are now in western Europe.

To be able to fulfill one’s global obligation without opening one’s doors to many refugees — to be able to help “from distance” — is morally convenient but it is also good sense, especially as it costs more than 100 times more to look after someone in Europe than it does in a neighbouring “haven” country.

Western countries like Britain are not let off the hook. They are still required to adequately fund the haven countries — Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon in the case of the Syria crisis — and select some of the most vulnerable from among the refugees in the camps.

So the issue becomes how to organise a fair division of labour between the haven countries that take most of the people in and the rich countries that have the obligation to cover the costs. In the recent past this fairness has been absent: the UNHCR is only about one third funded and only roughly 10 per cent of the four million Syrian refugees have received any support from the UN.

Only a minority of Syrian refugees are in camps. However, roughly half of the world’s 21 million refugees are in these dismal places and now tend to be there for an average of ten years, in part because most of the world’s conflicts are civil wars that take longer to fizzle out than international ones. And it is the authors’ ideas for improving life in the camps based on allowing people to work — both to stop them risking their lives trying to get to the West but also to prevent them wasting away — that is their main contribution.

The book, indeed, has its genesis in a trip they took together to the Za’atari camp in Jordan in 2015. Refugees in Jordan, as in most other places, are generally not allowed to work. (Uganda is a notable exception, praised by the authors, where refugees have thrived.) But the two men noticed that just up the road from the Za’atari camp there was an under-used industrial park. They subsequently came up with the Jordan Compact to get refugees working in the park, a plan backed by the Jordanian government, David Cameron and the World Bank.

The Compact, now being copied in Ethiopia too, could transform the lives of refugees around the world by giving them purpose and dignity and also making them useful to host countries. The idea is that special zones will attract Western companies whose goods then have privileged access to Western markets — buying “refugee” could soon become as common as buying fair trade for socially conscious consumers.

Britain has been closely involved with the Jordan Compact and this book might be seen as a manifesto for a new hardheaded “British model” in fulfilling our moral obligations to refugees at a distance. We have taken in few refugees in recent years (though we have selected some of the most vulnerable from camps) but have spent more than any comparable country in host countries.

Angela Merkel’s display of the “headless heart” in 2015, by contrast, gets a thorough drubbing. Not only did it hugely increase flows and boost the people-smugglers: it also tore up the EU’s Dublin rules (under which refugees must apply for asylum in the first EU country they arrive in), alienated all of eastern Europe, contributed to the Brexit vote, intensified the conflict in Syria itself, and by denuding the country of so much of its educated elite has made reconstruction harder. The road to hell . . .

The book is clearly written, though suffers from a rather didactic tone in parts. It is full of illuminating asides such as how mobile phones came to trigger the Arab Spring. I was unconvinced, however, by the theory that the number of refugees is on an upward trajectory because the world is getting more violent. Surely all forms of movement are rising because the poor world has a larger middle class, some of whom are desperate to get out and are more likely to have the means to do so. I spotted two mistakes: Poland was not a member of the EU in the 1990s; the famous “Breaking Point” poster in the Brexit referendum was a UKIP poster, not a Leave campaign poster (and was denounced by one of the leading Leavers, Michael Gove).

But this is an important book that transcends the moralism of so much refugee coverage, for example the Guardian journalist Patrick Kingsley’s book The New Odyssey, that urges us just to empathise with individuals. Betts and Collier are not short of empathy but can also look at the bigger picture. They may thereby have helped to improve millions of lives.

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