Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System

Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System

Politics not ethics: a review of Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, Penguin, 2017

There is a convenient summary of the ‘four new big ideas’ in this book on p. 188-9. They are:

1. ‘The right ethical focus is duty to rescue the displaced from the disruption to normal life’;

2. ‘The best place for safe havens are those that are easy for the displaced to reach, and rich countries should make it financially feasible for these haven countries to take them’;

3. ‘The best way to restore normality is for refugees to be able to work, so jobs should be brought to the haven countries’;

4. ‘The economic support needed for refugees can be used for the dual purpose of incubating the post-conflict recovery’.

Points 2, 3 and 4 are well argued and difficult to dispute in any deep sense. I will explain why later. The first, however, is controversial, and worryingly so because, unless rich countries are moved to action, none of the other ‘big ideas’ will actually have much impact because they concern how, once moved, rich countries should act.

The first big idea is controversial primarily because it is not clear that appealing to a duty to rescue will motivate the rich to act. This ‘big idea’ is also liable to provoke because of the prickly manner in which it is developed. The latter does not directly concern me – others will know better whether the authors are right to locate where things go/went the wrong with humanitarianism and the UNHCR. However, it is worth noting because I suspect this running argument with the UNHCR and humanitarianism is bound to irritate some (and probably unhelpfully, given what I say below about politics).

The prickly casing aside, there are two things wrong with the first ‘big idea’. The first is a kind of internal contradiction with other parts of their argument. Or to put this slightly differently, Betts and Collier’s other arguments reveal that the impulse to rescue is worryingly fickle as a motivator. One way to understand these difficulties is to through the thought experiment example that they use to ground the duty to rescue. This concerns what a bystander will do when they come across a child drowning in a pond. Most people’s response would be to rescue and this plausibly has, at some level, something to do with a common humanity. Unfortunately, as Betts and Collier acknowledge, the drowning person will motivate bystanders to action much less when the ‘bystander’ is geographically distant from the pond: for example, when they ‘come across’ the drowning person through a newspaper or television report. This is a stubborn feature of our moral universe and it means that in so far as refugees do remain (as per ‘big idea 2’ or,  courtesy of the prevailing humanitarianism, warehoused) in havens like those in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, then ‘rich’ countries will be less inclined to feel a moral imperative to help.

To see a related concern over the reliability of the ethics of rescue, consider another argument made by Betts and Collier. When discussing the Syrian refugee crisis, they note that a vicious dynamic took hold.  The failure of the humanitarian warehousing to re-create anything like the normal conditions of life not unsurprisingly led refugees to seek something better by seeking sanctuary in a rich country. The impulse to rescue meant that they were greeted (initially) with something approximating a welcome. However, this ethical impulse was its own undoing. The ‘welcome’ could only serve to encourage others to make the often deadly trip to rich countries and, as Betts and Collier plausibly argue, the welcoming mood in these countries quickly changed when the numbers of refugees grew. In short, the impulse to rescue is weak when you need it (for refugees in safe havens miles away) and can’t be relied upon when it is initially strong (for refugees when they knock on the doors of rich countries).

A final difficulty with the duty to rescue people when their normal lives are disrupted is that this version of an ethical principle has some obvious boundary difficulties. Lives are, in practice, disrupted in many ways. Does the principle and the duty extend to all kinds of disruption? Technological change is disruptive. Communities built around particular industries and technology can quickly collapse and the people living in them often suffer mental health problems. Some die. There are two kinds of answers to this challenge. One can identify some cut-off level of disruption. But this looks arbitrary. Alternatively, one can concede that the ethical duty extends, albeit in varying degrees, to all kinds of disruption. The difficulty with this response, given limited resources in rich countries, is that it puts helping refugees in competition with other disrupted groups and the in-group bias that I referred to above means that refugees are always liable to come off second best in such a competition.  

Although I make these as points about the ethics of rescue, I fear that something similar would apply to any ethics or moral appeal to rich countries to act in support of refugees. As a result, it might be a better strategy to appeal to the rich countries’ own self interest in the matter. The question of whether such an appeal is successful would then become a matter of politics, not simply ethics.

This is the second difficulty with grounding the argument on an ethical duty of rescue. Ethics are the wrong kind of foundation. This is the central weakness of the book. The case for action on the basis of self interest is not how the argument is developed and the politics of advancing such a case are not taken up. Unfortunately this is what we need to understand better if the other three ‘big ideas’ are to have the influence that they deserve.

The peculiar thing about the book is that it is not that it does not in effect talk about the self interest of rich countries, or register that politics are crucial. On the role of self interest, they simply refer to the way that what they are proposing in their other three big ideas are ‘win-win’. What this means is precisely that they are in the self interest of both the rich, the near neighbours to the conflict who provide sanctuary and the refugees.  All the evidence, for example, points to the refugees preferring sanctuary close to their original homes. They only make the risky and life threatening journeys to rich countries when the conditions in refugee camps are desperate. The rich countries, in turn, would seem to have an obvious interest in refugees staying close to their homes if only because they currently spend $135 on a refugee that comes to a rich country for every $1 they spend on a refugee who stays in the near conflict camps. The difference between 135 and 1 provides a major incentive to more generosity if this secures more people staying in countries near the conflict; and that generosity can include, of course, the host countries near the conflict.

This looks like a ‘win-win’ outcome, but as political economists will tell you, a deal that looks good for everyone can as easily produce not the reasoned generosity implicit in the is model, but ‘free riding’ on the good of others. If others are busy win-winning, then we don’t need to bother do we? Betts and Collier run the argument through getting the ethics right, when actually what is needed is an argument about getting the politics right.

I have no special insights on what is entailed in getting the politics right but I will make two observations. The first, to connect with my earlier comment about the running commentary on the UNHCR, is that it is helpful to have collective action institutions when solving collective action problems like the free rider one. The UNHCR is such an institution. It may be flawed, but for this reason I’d be loathe to alienate It (and those who may mistakenly believe that international law will do the trick) from the enterprise of solving today’s key collective action problem: the refugee crisis.

Second, we know from the experience of solving the collective action problem among countries that it requires leadership by the rich and powerful countries. This is in the nature of collective action problems. Someone has to sacrifice immediate self interest to secure the interests of all in the long run by standing ready to discipline the free riders. The rich are best able to do this because they are rich. But, there’s the nub. Being rich also gives you great bargaining power and the temptation to think that you can get away with paying least. This is the task of leadership: it takes us beyond what is immediate and obvious to self interest to what serves an  enlightened self interest born of imagining what happens in a longer term future. What ‘fixes’ thing now at least cost rarely survives; and the bill that comes later is always larger in these matters.

Leadership of this kind in politics is in short supply right now. This is why we have a new kind of populism. Our politicians have failed to deliver leadership. They have settled for the quick cheap fix and left all of us, refugees and hosts, migrants and those trapped by austerity, to live with the long-term consequences.  Refuge is actually rather good in bringing this out in relation to the Syrian refugee crisis. It was the flaws in the Schengen agreement that played a key part in the unfolding crisis in 2015. The Schengen agreement did not do two, albeit difficult, but crucial things. It neither established a common or shared border police and nor did it create a mechanism for sharing the responsibility for taking refugees.  Instead, the rich countries of France, Germany and the EU HQs came up with the cheap solution: those countries like Greece and Italy (who happened to be poorer and less powerful than France and Germany) had to police the Schengen border for all; and refugees had to seek asylum in the countries where they first arrived (i.e. Greece and Italy). It does not take a political economist to see that Greece and Italy had no incentive to police the border or register refugees who arrived.  

There is a pattern here involving France, Germany and EU HQs because they failed in a similar fashion in the construction of the Euro. They created the single currency but they did not create the necessary complementary institutions of a banking union and a fiscal union. They did not do this at the time because it would have involved addressing the key difficulty. A fiscal union and banking union undermine national economic autonomy. Rather than tackle this head-on, they set up the single currency and sang Ode to Joy. It is ironic and sad that Greece, the home of democracy, should be at the sharp end of both these failures in leadership. It is hardly surprising that large numbers of European have taken to blowing raspberries when confronted with these versions of ‘normal politics’.

Shaun Hargreaves Heap in Professor of Political Economy at King's College London. His books include Game Theory: A Critical Introduction (with Yanis Varoufakis).

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