‘Refuge: Transforming a broken refugee system’ – but into what?

The right to work for refugees is vital. In fact, increasing the economic opportunities for refugees is the only way in which they can become autonomous and productive, escape from long-term limbo and prevent them from being a burden on the state. But this is just one of the ways in which refugees can be supported, and providing the right to work is not an excuse for states to avoid their responsibilities to help people in need. Fundamentally, there needs to be political will and collaboration around a range of interventions and support to resolve refugee crises and an equitable resettlement arrangement should be a part of this.

A ‘broken refugee system’?

Since reading Alexander Betts’ and Paul Collier’s new book Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System, we have been watching the resulting discourse with interest. The publication of this book has been accompanied with a flurry of articles and publicity, and resulted in discussions on Twitter, in the press, and at ODI. This discussion is of great value, and brings a vital focus on the importance of socio-economic activities of refugees to the fore. However, as have many of those who commented, we have concerns about the approaches proposed in the book and some of the analysis on which they are based.

The book presents the “refugee system” as “broken”, and puts forward a number of ways to fix, or replace it. There is some truth to this judgement, and at face value many of the proposals are sensible. The ‘international humanitarian system’ is indeed straining at the seams, and widely acknowledged to be inadequate for the tasks its faces. Nation states, with Western countries in the vanguard, are retreating from their commitments and responsibilities toward refugees. There are ways in which the collective international response to refugees and displacement could be greatly improved.

But the book’s conclusions seem to be drawn from an overly simplistic analysis. Support to refugees is presented as either camps or work and the 1951 refugee convention as an irrelevant anachronism. Historical comparisons with displacement after World War II are superficial and simplistic, as painstakingly emphasised by Dr Benjamin Thomas White’s live-tweeting of his reading of the book. The economics are correspondingly flawed, as explained by Behzad Yaghmaian. Importantly, there is little or no reference to human rights and only lip-service to the political realities in which most refugee crises occur.

The work seems to present false dichotomies between camps and economic opportunities for refugees, between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’, between historical and current refugee crises, and between supporting refugees in neighbouring countries and resettlement in Western countries. All this is reducing complex, nuanced and highly political situations to simplistic rights and wrongs.

The right to work

One of the main premises of the book, that refugees should have economic opportunities and not be denied the means to become autonomous and productive, has obvious merit. The denial of the right to work can exacerbate a sense of alienation and despair, as well as eroding long-term skills and ambition. Not only does the 1951 Refugee Convention support this, it is of mutual benefit to break down boundaries to economic participation of refugees. Encouraging host states to improve working rights for refugees could simultaneously benefit refugees, contribute to the state’s national-development strategy and have the potential to support post-conflict reconstruction.

This idea is not new, however. The claim that the notion of refugees’ need to work is “tragically new to the humanitarian-dominated domain of refugees” is simply untrue. The right to work is inherent in the 1951 Refugee Convention, and in the case of Syria, CARE has been advocating for the right to work for Syrian refugees since at least 2014, and is by no means the only agency to do so.

In particular, in recent years, CARE International UK has drafted a livelihoods position on behalf of the wider INGO community for the London Conference on Syria, convened roundtables with business on their role in refugee livelihoods, and organised other studies and outreach to different actors – including government line ministries and private sector actors in refugee-hosting nations. Also see Lives unseen: Urban Syrian refugees and Jordanian host communities (April 2014).

The proposal to “upend” the current “regime” and put global business “to work”, thereby “bringing to refugees the opportunities to thrive”, reflects a capitalist view of refugees as an economic resource from which global business can make profit, without consideration of the rights of refugees or the significant risk of their exploitation. In pursuing an ill-conceived enlightened pragmatism, the book proposes a refugee support system which could provide opportunities for rampant exploitation and injustice, and has no hope of reaching sufficient scale.

Choice and autonomy – or exploitation?

A key recommendation of the book is to use Special Economic Zones (SEZs) to “offer sufficiently attractive opportunities to attract refugees to choose to work within and live close to these spaces”, “premised upon possibilities that enhance refugee choice and autonomy”. SEZs are areas in which business, trade and tax laws differ from the rest of the country, in order to attract trade, investment and job creation. As the authors (among many others) have noted, SEZs are associated with “exploitative low-wage labour”.

Yet the book argues that “there is no reason why the model could not be adapted to ensure respect for human rights and consistency with a set of ethical practices” and that, “crucially, the model should not function on the basis of any kind of coercion but offer sufficiently attractive opportunities to attract refugees to choose to work within and live close to these spaces.” However, the authors do not address how to actually avoid exploitation, when employing people so obviously open to abuse as refugees, indicating a troublingly naïve expectation of the measures necessary to protect refugee rights to work.

The book places a great deal of trust in the willingness and ability of large multi-nationals to create large numbers of jobs for refugees, without abusing this arrangement. Enticing such companies will require various incentives and special rules which would likely lay the groundwork for exploitative arrangements where companies avoid paying taxes and have access to cheap labour with no protection of rights. SEZs will likely lead to a situation where refugees, dependent on the work and unlikely to get long-term formal support from an under-funded and stretched humanitarian system, are at risk of becoming trapped in conditions akin to bonded labour.

The currently struggling Jordan Compact is the only precedent for this they can draw upon. Part of this deal is to allow Syrian refugees to apply for work permits both inside and outside of the zones, with estimates of this providing 50,000 job opportunities in the first year and 200,000 job opportunities in the ‘coming years’ (while the refugees remain in the country). Approximately 37,000 of the 50,000 work permits promised to refugees by the Jordanian government in the first year have been issued, but only four per cent of these are held by women. There are around 1 million refugees in Jordan. The idea that this approach can ever reach sufficient scale, or indeed that any major refugee-hosting economy can create a large enough number of jobs, is hopelessly naïve.

Entrepreneurism and enterprise

A study, referenced in the book, of how refugees in Uganda have fared when given the right to work and access to land, recognises the potential of refugees to create their own economic opportunities, if only given the right to do so. The entrepreneurism of refugees in Zaatari camp is also highlighted. It is strange, therefore, that that authors settle on large, often multi-national, companies to create employment for so many.

In pursuing the dream of global capitalism coming to the rescue, the book ignores the inevitable exploitation that would result from widespread use of SEZs. It also ignores the hopeless mismatch between the need for the jobs and ability to create them. But perhaps most grievously, a book that claims to want to bring autonomy and self-reliance to refugees doesn’t do justice to the tremendous potential of refugees’ own entrepreneurism and enterprise to bring benefit to themselves and their hosts, in favour of using them as labour for multi-nationals.

The need for political will and collaboration

The book identifies a current opportunity to reform the ‘refugee system’, highlighting that “far from being encouraged to see refugees as potential workers able to contribute productively to their host society, governments are learning to see them as quasi-hostages to be mistreated unless kind hearts with deep wallets pay up. This makes comprehensive reform of refugee policy an urgent necessity.”
It then goes on to propose sweeping aside humanitarian aid and resettlement, sidelining the 1951 Refugee Convention, and starting afresh with market-based approaches and a more politicised UNHCR.

It was very welcome to hear much more nuance regarding the book’s recommendations at the recentODI panel discussion on the subject. Sadly, without this nuance, the book comes across as an apologist for shameful European refugee policy by analysing the recent European influxes and concluding the only way to proceed is more of the same policy coupled with more development assistance. For example, the book concludes that large numbers of migrants (and we note explicitly that refugees are migrants) using dangerous routes means third countries should not accept refugees to avoid a pull-factor. In doing so the book accepts states’ refusal to meet refugee and human rights, and fails to examine the alternative of meaningful resettlement schemes which include safe transit which are more accessible and available to those who need them.

The fact is, as it has always been, that ‘solving’ the various refugee crises that face the world requires political will and collaboration around a range of interventions and support. There should be a right to work for refugees in host countries. There should also be conventional aid or welfare-like systems for those who cannot work and support themselves (and this may need to happen on a large scale). There should be development interventions to support host communities and their economies. There should also be resettlement, and safe, voluntary returns when appropriate. And yes, there should be innovative ideas like repatriating companies, and perhaps, in some situations, SEZs.

No ‘easy way out’ for governments…

We strongly agree that there is a need for reform, but this book appears to propose throwing the baby out with the bathwater and negotiating a new framework at a time of historically low political will to support others in need. In the time of ‘Make America Great Again’, the EU and its members’ abject failure to share any burden whatsoever, the shelving of the Dubs Amendment, and the negligible outcomes of recent conferences, now is the time to stand up for the rights of refugees and responsibilities of all states to play their part in every way they can.

As CARE continues to advocate, the UK government must accept more refugees from Europe, reverse the decision to cancel the Dubs Amendment and deliver on our commitments under the Dublin Regulation to reunite families. The UK should also accept more refugees from outside Europe, bringing forward to 2018 the deadline for resettlement of 20,000 Syrian refugees. The UK government should dedicate political will and budget commitment for the long term.

Wealthy countries should take in a fair share of those seeking refuge so as to form part of a broader meaningful solution not only by supporting those resettled directly, but also by alleviating pressure on neighbouring countries. Importantly, international support must not end at improving refugees’ rights to work somewhere else. Refugee work alone is by no means a straightforward solution and should not form an ‘easy way out’ for governments.

… or for humanitarian agencies

Humanitarian agencies need to improve upon and scale up existing and new approaches to supporting refugees outside camps, such as increased use of cash programming, protection and case management and integration with social safety nets, alongside more conventional humanitarian support.

There are some interesting and valuable proposals in the book, and we hope that the ongoing discussion and political discourse will be able to focus on these, rather than the more simplistic, headline-grabbing suggestions. The UN’s approach to supporting refugees and migrants suffers from competing agencies and mandates, and certainly merits reform. It is an excellent idea for UNHCR to strengthen its ability to analyse and navigate the complex politics around refugees. The value of these ideas is largely lost in the almost vitriolic criticism of UNHCR. Perhaps the most interesting idea in the book is to repatriate not just refugees, but also their employers. But this is not explored or developed, and remains a footnote compared to the main themes of the book. Perhaps the newly formed World Refugee Council, which includes CARE’s Jessie Thomson and co-author of Refuge, Alexander Betts, can explore these themes with all the rigour and nuance they deserve.

The book states at one point that the “default option at the onset of a refugee crisis should not be that nobody does anything, but that everybody does everything”.

We wholeheartedly agree with this.

This blog was co-authored with Rebecca Gibbons, and first appeared on CARE International’s Insights Blog.