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AFA1 Book Review by Richard Denniss

Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System
Alexander Betts and Paul Collier
Allen Lane

No one is less powerful than someone asking for help. And few politicians prioritise the needs of those who can’t vote. So it should come as no surprise that for the last fifty years little political attention has been dedicated to developing a humane, sustainable and efficient way to deal with the inevitability of refugee crises.

As millions of people fled conflict in Syria in 2015 and many of those kept moving through neighbouring countries and into Europe, politicians in rich countries were forced to confront the simple reality that leaders of many developing countries have been confronting for decades: the current global framework for responding to the post-conflict movement of large numbers of refugees is failing badly.

In Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System, political scientist Alexander Betts and economist Paul Collier expose the enormous human, political and economic costs associated with the current refugee framework and lay out a new roadmap for what an equitable and efficient approach might be.

Betts and Collier examine the flaws with the approach that was developed to deal with European refugees after World War II and is still used today to deal with the 65 million people whose lives have been uprooted by violence. The authors describe the plight of millions of people spending years, and often decades, in “temporary camps,” and make a persuasive case that such camps, originally built to save lives in the short term, are destroying them in the long term.

They confront readers with the fact that the ethics of not just offering refuge but providing a new start in life are as complex as they are passionately debated. For example, is the fact that rich countries spend $135 on the minority of refugees who cross borders to escape conflict for every $1 they spend helping those who stay behind evidence of generosity or inequity?

Refuge is at its most optimistic, and most challenging, when it urges readers to see refugees through the economist’s prism of “human resources,” with time, skills, creativity and entrepreneurial talent that can benefit their temporary host countries, the countries they will hopefully return to (post-conflict) and the global economy. While limitations on the ability of refugees to work and trade are often justified on economic grounds, Betts and Collier make a persuasive case that such restrictions impose devastating personal and economic costs on both refugees and host countries.

So what is to be done? The authors draw heavily on their recent experience in Jordan, where they saw firsthand efforts to combine the underutilised labour of refugees with underutilised capacity in the £100 million King Hussein bin Talal Development Area that had already been built nearby. While they are at pains to avoid “one size fits all” suggestions, a central argument is that “special economic zones” might create win-win outcomes, especially when rich countries offer special trade concessions for goods produced within such zones. 

While it is hard to argue with the proposition that refugees have an enormous amount to contribute to local and global economies, it is doubtful that most countries would be willing to invest in the kind of infrastructure that, by coincidence, lay idle near the Jordanian refugee camps. Similarly, while it is easy to see why European countries might consider granting trade concessions to products exported from a special economic zone in the midst of a crisis on their doorstep, it is harder to imagine governments in Australia, the United States or Europe offering trade concessions to similar camps in Africa or South-East Asia. Despite these difficulties, which the authors concede, the case for switching our view of refugees from burden to resource is fundamentally important, as evidenced by the breadth and stature of the endorsements on the back of the book, which range from former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to Nobel Prize–winning economist George Akerlof. 

The premise of Refuge, that we need to develop structures to deal with the new realities of conflict-induced mobility, is both a strength and a weakness. It challenges readers to think about opportunities, but, understandably, does not offer a utopian solution. However, the book does map the ethical, economic and legal terrain that any designers of a new global solution will need to navigate, and provides both a challenge and a resource for all readers interested in incremental or radical change to refugee policy.

Richard Denniss