KEVIN BAIN. “Down with refugee capture and storage!” Part 2 of 2

Oct 12, 2018

In Part 1 I pointed to opinion research which suggests that European and Australian political leaderships are playing to their narrow base, that the population has not abandoned humanitarian attitudes towards refugees, but do reject the dominant slogans of advocates and the implied consequences. I’ll comment on one of the aspects, and report on the 2017 Alexander Betts and Paul Collier book “Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System.”

The objective is refugee support not higher migration

The Essential Poll from April this year suggests support for immigration and refugee intake levels is decreasing, although further analysis suggests these are visible proxies for the “lived experience” of inadequate infrastructure and congestion. A significant majority support multiculturalism, suggesting some empathy for refugees fleeing violence and oppression, always a small number compared to migrants. (Caveat: I heard the other day that phone polling in Australia used to get a 36% response rate, now down to 9%, so pick your analyst carefully.) I’ve never seen why there’s something virtuous about high immigration. Whether motivated by self-interest (we have opponents here) or a political view which rejects sovereignty, it’s not our fight and not helpful to get more support for refugees.

Unfortunately the recent European situation, spoken of widely as “mixed migration” has muddied the waters – the great majority of boat people to Australia over the last 20 years were fleeing war and oppression, even if their first landing was elsewhere. Taking more people directly from camps in our region would tap into the feeling that Australia has the responsibility and capacity to do lots more, and disarm those who sow the seeds of confusion about economic migration.

The radical rethink by Betts and Collier

The authors are eminent in their field of refugee studies and development economics respectively. The great strength of their book is its contrarian approach – it doesn’t takes as eternal verities the moral, legal, historical basis of the Refugee Convention 1951 and UNHCR, and urge a list of musts/oughts/shoulds, and “further research is needed”. It includes recommendations, but derives them from first principles, then applied to current empirical realities. Why now? The compelling reasons are the current state of refugee displacement, and the lack of an apparent feasible way for most refugees to get their lives back. They seek the basics of what went wrong and grapple with what can be done. It is rich in multi-disciplinary knowledge and written in an accessible style.

Here is a panel presentation last year at the LSE, but best to get the authors’ views more fully in the book. Last month’s paper “Prioritising people: a progressive narrative on migration” from the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (a European Parliament funded group) seems to pick up some of the ideas.

Some of the numbers they report (from 2016) are 20 million refugees, 45 million internally displaced persons, 90% in haven countries in the developing world with little official support, or rights to work, school, movement, and with an average exile period over 10 years. Only 2% get any of the 3 designated “durable solutions” – repatriation (afterwards), resettlement to third country, local integration – and this includes 1% resettlement. Over half nowadays are in protracted situations with an average stay of 20 years, 80% are there for >5 years. “Receiving” governments (haven countries) are cash-strapped and there’s little sign of wealthy countries stepping up to share the burden (with the US moving away much quicker since then). The exodus from North Africa has slowed, but the domestic politics of Europe has worsened. Since the book, what they describe as “a Europe crisis not a refugee crisis” has become more so. Business As Usual is not an option.

The main section of the book is 5 chapters headed Rethinking Ethics, Havens, Assistance, Post-Conflict, Governance. but a few of their controversial assertions as I understand them are:

  • UNHCR statute mandates two roles: provide protection, and find long term solutions; neither is being met
  • Almost universal non-compliance with socio-economic rights required by the Refugee Convention
  • Flight from violence in fragile states, not persecution, is the driver of most displacement, and resources dissipated on tortured legal attempts to fit the RC, mean less available for meeting refugee needs
  • Longterm refuge is a development as well as humanitarian issue but UNHCR and other institutions slow to get it
  • Most refugees want work, nowadays technology, finance, and new actors are available, new techniques of support
  • Models that benefit host states and refugees will enable safe havens (eg. Jordan, Lebanon, Ethiopia) to remain politically viable
  • Merkel’s reluctant agreement with Turkey to receive returnees was a backdown, and financially gamed by Erdogan; other offshore countries are now attempting the same
  • 3 obligations to refugees: rescue, autonomy over their lives, an eventual way out, done sustainably and at scale
  • Four big new ideas – safe havens, duty of rescue, autonomy in exile, post-conflict incubation (return to normality)
  • The core should be the duty of rescue based on humanitarian obligation, not a right to migrate

Australian debate about strategy – where is it?

When the next refugee “event” happens, the media firestorm (much of it professional trolling) will allow no room for leisurely thinking, and I imagine there’s scenario planning in the backrooms of Canberra now, especially how to win the domestic politics. We have some breathing space, but the issues of boat turnbacks, offshore detention, temporary protection onshore, resettlement numbers could quickly come back to the centre of our politics. Without a more sophisticated view, drawing on the recent European experience, and the rigorous analysis of this book, I fear that the current moral and legal framing which dominates Australian commentary will prevail, and the chance of influencing political outcomes next year will be gone. The perfect will become the enemy of the good, again.

During the Gillard government time, Greens leader Bob Brown said “I get asked on this immigration question, as with others, well, why aren’t we bringing this government down? Because you get Tony Abbott.” If a Labor government is the necessary but not sufficient pre-condition for change, as I think it is, will activists continue with the notion that they’re both as bad as each other? (I’m not sure how many refugee advocates actually believe this, or are trying to sound more moderate.)

It makes sense to have these debates now but we seem to have “paralysis by non-analysis”. The advocacy groups are strapped for resources and have ongoing demands, the Refugee Research Blog has virtually no feedback or exchange between professionals, much of the online commentary on articles at The Conversation is trolliing. Pearls and Irritations and Eureka Street and some of the Schwartz publications have commentary, but are not set up for extended debate. Perhaps what the refugee movement needs is a dedicated forum to debate and discuss substantial comments, such as an online journal. Any suggestions?

Kevin Bain has a background in economic analysis and teaching. His Refugee Reading Guide can be accessed at the Mornington Peninsula Human Rights Group website.





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