For too many refugees, life passes while waiting for return

This post is part of a series of reflections on “Refuge”, by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier.

Restoring focus to the autonomy and dignity of refugees today is an important challenge, which ‘Refuge: Transforming a broken refugee system’ by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier sets out to address. Arguably, this is something which is central to any aim of better policies for refugee protection globally. By upholding an individual’s autonomy, even in desperate circumstances, and by recognizing their skills and capacities, it is possible to move away from narratives of victimhood.

Much attention has been granted to the book’s proposed economic solutions for refugee livelihoods in neighboring regions, for good reasons, as refugee livelihoods are of course a critical issue for any plausible resolution to problems of displacement. There are, however, salient questions which intersect with the proposed economic solutions, which merit further discussion.

It is timely in this context to revisit Barbara Harrell-Bond, the founder of the University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Center, seminal book from 1986, Imposing aid. Those were different times – geopolitically – still during the Cold War. The famine in the Horn of Africa was an important backdrop, as were multiple violent conflicts, resulting in flows of people in search for safety. In her ‘Imposing aid: Emergency assistance to Refugees’, Harrell-Bond studies the effects of imposing aid on refugees, honing in on emergency assistance to refugees in Southern Sudan.

Three points seem highly relevant for today’s context of a global crisis of refugee protection: i) short term rescue is not a solution, but three decades on the challenge of refugees in limbo persists; ii) imposing aid continues to produce victimhood and vulnerability among refugees, but the failure of providing any aid at all to many results in even greater vulnerabilities; and iii) there are complicated geopolitics underlying here. Back in the 80s Harrell-Bond referred to “the colonial approach to refugees as a Third World problem. The geopolitics of both refugee protection – and not least of international migration management – appears equally relevant today.

So, restoring autonomy and dignity by recognizing skills and capacities, notably with regard to securing ones owns livelihood, remain key elements for any policy that would hope to better protect refugees. Agreeing fully with this premise which is also put forward in ‘Refuge’, I have three concerns. These concerns touch on issues discussed in ‘Refuge’ which I would argue are counterproductive, or at best problematic, in as much as the book seeks to offer solutions. These are in part solutions for refugees in protracted situations, in part solutions considering the need for equity in development and assistance offered within local communities where refugees live, but also solutions to European states’ desires to curb irregular movement into Europe from neighboring regions. Not surprisingly, interests do not always align.

  1. Migration is human movement

In ‘Refuge’ Betts and Collier explicitly state: “But refugees are not migrants” (p. 30). This is part of an argument built in support of a clear-cut dichotomy between on the one hand migrants, and on the other hand refugees. It is followed up with pairs referring to what drives migrants and refugees: “Hopes vs. fears” – “Aspirations vs. despair”, reflected in where migrants and refugees go: “Honeypot countries vs. local havens” (see e.g. p. 30-3).

The distinction between refugees and migrants as total and categorical needs to be unpacked. Whether an international migrant is labeled forced or voluntary defines access to protection and often to migration itself. Clearly, it matters how we describe migrants, as refugees, or not. But looking at empirical examples of migration from contexts which are more or less conflict-affected and more or less desperate with regards to living conditions, some people are in need of protection, yet all are in search of a future in which life may be lived.

The distinction between not having a choice about fleeing (‘mass violence’, in Betts and Colliers terms), and really seeing no alternatives which are acceptable in terms of putting food on the table tomorrow and therefore migrating, is not always so clear-cut in reality. Hope and fear, aspiration and desire, more often than not work in conjunction with one another.

This proves especially true when options for the future are considered. This is also why the term ‘mixed migration flows’ is often questioned. For unless it is possible to acknowledge that a person can in fact be a mixed migrant, in the sense of being driven by both hope and fear, by aspiration and despair, the term mixed migration suggests it is possible to distinguish clearly. Reality doesn’t map perfectly onto legal categories, such as the ones where international law regulates the protection of refugees.

The crucial point is thus one which Betts and Collier also raise, albeit give little prominence. In ‘Refuge’ they acknowledge that “alternative migratory channels should be available” (p. 206), that “onward movement should be managed” (p. 206) and that there should be “routes out of limbo” (p. 205). All of these, arguably, underscore the fact that finding solutions for displaced populations is not possible if keeping it a matter entirely isolated from broader questions of international migration. Such broader questions of international migration, however, are unfortunately not dealt with seriously in relation to the proposed solutions in ‘Refuge’.

  1. Return and the limbo problem

The three durable solutions which UNCHR operates with, local integration, resettlement, and return, are essentially all spatial responses to displacement. Either people can remain where they first arrive as refugees, or they can get resettled elsewhere, or eventually they can go back. In ‘Refuge’ all three solutions are considered, and as would be the case among many refugees themselves, ‘return’ is – at least in the abstract – seen as the most desirable solution.

The untenable status quo of lives in limbo in refugee camps, but also among urban refugees, too often living in destitution, are a driving force in the book. For, as Betts and Collier argue, there is the “duty to rescue the displaced from disruption to normal life generated by their flight from home” (p. 188-9), delivering on “the hope that normal life will be restored” (p. 182), and acknowledging that following initial emergency assistance people must be “offered a pathway towards reintegration into normal life” (p. 156). In ‘Refuge’ a time limit of 5 years, or possibly 10 years, is suggested, by which time a solution for an individual should be found.

The approach to the challenge of lives in limbo in ‘Refuge’ is closely associated with the idea that return can and must be possible, if not for all, than certainly for most. Yet for many displaced people today, onward movement is often the way out of limbo. This involves acting autonomously to look for economic opportunities and work, in order to use capacities, provide for loved ones, and search for a livable future for children.

And so one might ask: When return is not possible, and we know that remains a challenge in a number of protracted refugee situations, what are the incentives for governments around the world to agree to local integration or to resettlement?

Also, whether or not return is possible or not is certainly not always straightforward to assess, take for instance Hazaras returning to Afghanistan, or cases of other minorities. But leaving that aside, whilst return is usually the goal at the outset, whether for refugees or other migrants, life happens.

The implications of the 5, or maybe 10, year period waiting for a durable solution – even if within a frame where autonomy is granted and capacities are recognized – is not really discussed in ‘Refuge’. For an 8 year old who left Afghanistan with his parents 10 years ago, and who is 18 years old today, it’s not so clear perhaps where return should be to. For, we are talking about individuals, many of them young boys and girls born outside of their parents’ country of birth.

Unfortunately, the taken for granted assumption, that return will happen for most, lingers in ‘Refuge’, despite acknowledgment of protracted refugee situations globally. It remains unclear how exactly governments which are now local havens or those further afield would be incentivized to provide local integration and resettlement opportunities at the necessary scale and pace, to allow for a “5 years in limbo” line to be drawn. Rather ‘Refuge’ conveys a pervasive logic of keeping people where they are, before being able to put them back where they belong. This does not resonate too well with the book’s overarching ideas of autonomy and recognition of capacities, one of which surely is that of adaptation.

  1. International solidarity and troubled diversity

Lastly, international solidarity and state’s sharing responsibilities for people and costs are central to the argument in ‘Refuge’. Yet, as is acknowledged, international solidarity, in relation to refugees or otherwise, is limited. Whilst some regional governance solutions are suggested, the necessity of international solidarity is not coupled with a conviction of such being forthcoming.

Instead, there are several instances throughout ‘Refuge’ where there is a sense of troubled diversity. More specifically a sense of migration-related diversity per se posing a problem, and a problem in Europe. Challenges to local integration of refugees in countries neighboring those refugees originate from, countries that may not be willing to offer pathways to full integration and citizenship, are largely seen as economic. Meanwhile, in the European context, it is acknowledged that states wish to avoid people arriving irregularly. It is also argued that it is unlikely refugees might contribute economically, given the structure of the labor markets in countries such as Germany or Sweden. When the integration of Syrians in Germany is discussed, this includes some sections which tend toward the speculative, suggesting the existence somehow of insurmountable cultural incompatibilities. In turn, necessary integration policies, which might enable entrance to the labor market, are seen (probably with some validity) as contributing to hinder a future permanent return, when peace one day returns to Syria. Altogether this promotes the idea that refugees (or migrants in general, perhaps) – from the European perspective at least – are far better kept away.

On the one hand, this again reveals a lacking sensitivity to the fact that life happens, time passes, and if ways to normal life are to be offered, that does mean leaving a limbo of uncertainty behind at some point, and being able to know where your future is. For instance, in Germany. On the other hand, there is this sense of troubled diversity, notably in Europe, where it remains unclear whether this reflects the authors take on questions of societal diversity, or rather whether it sits with their approach to regional and local solutions close to the conflict areas producing refugees. Even if opting for the latter, the sense that seeing diversity as trouble is somehow a well-evidenced claim, remains. This is concerning, given the fact that, by contrast, it is well-evidenced that what outcomes societal diversity produces depends on the governance of diversity, not its presence or not in the first place.

Given the current political climate in Europe, which is very much the backdrop for ‘Refuge’, some reflections on the implications and dangers of careless group difference generalizations, about e.g. refugees – or Syrians – in Europe, are called for. Here, unfortunately, perspectives foregrounding migration as an anomaly or a threat, for states to keep in check, prevail. This comes at a loss to the ideas of autonomy and dignity of individuals, which other parts of the book – placed elsewhere geographically – hone in on. It also fails to acknowledge the fact that perceiving diversity to be a threat to societal cohesion is not a European prerogative. Perceptions, however, are not realities, also when it comes to the implications of immigration.

For too many refugees, life passes while waiting for return. Betts and Collier’s new book is a welcome contribution to dusting off serious debates about the international refugee regime and humanitarian obligations of protection. Protection of those displaced by violent conflict, as well as by persecution, must remain an international humanitarian duty, where international legal instruments, arguably, remain very much needed. The solutions offered, foregrounding individuals’ autonomy and dignity, and the crucial need for sustainable livelihoods, build on solid foundations in refugee studies over the past three decades. It is, however, hard to see how resolving the problem of lives kept in limbo can be achievable, if central questions about international migration, which are closely related to those of refugee protection, remain un-addressed.