Review Response: Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System

Review Response: Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System

Here Professor Alexander Betts and Sir Paul Collier, authors of Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System  respond to Professor Shaun Hargeaves-Heap's review.


We are grateful to Shaun for taking the time to review our book. Reflecting his background as a game theorist, the review focuses on the book's implicit understanding of the motives and strategic interactions of states in offering refugee assistance. What is the nature of the cooperation problem in the refugee regime? Can it be best overcome by appealing to values or interests, and, if so, how? Any successful international institutional framework has to be built on a coherent understanding of these questions. 

The review's central claim is that there is a possible tension between Refuge's treatment of ethics and politics, mainly because the former relates to values and the latter to interests. This is an interesting question, although we would suggest there is no contradiction here. Our argument in the ethics chapter is that properly posed, the duty of rescue can attract almost universal support within a rich country; and that persuading governments to help has only failed because the form of support supposedly thought necessary – opening borders to all – is not seen by most people as ethically reasonable. Thus, re-grounding the ethics in rescue – including with restoration of autonomy etc. – does make it feasible for governments to adopt win-win solutions, with their populations behind them. But even if our ethical analysis did not enable such cooperative outcomes, it would still be entirely consistent to ground the ethics of people's obligations towards refugees while also analysing how best to create institutions that can engage with politics in order to close the gap between ethical standards and practical realities.

Shaun is right that appealing to ethics alone will probably not be sufficient to overcome intergovernmental collective action failure and elicit adequate protection and assistance for refugees. And this is why we also turn to politics in order to argue that effective international institutions are needed to facilitate international cooperation, particularly between Northern donor states and Southern host states. We know from theories of international cooperation that institutions can overcome collective action in a range of ways: through norms, facilitating bargaining or offering expert knowledge, for instance. Effective institutions are especially important in the refugee context because, as Shaun implies, refugee protection has been argued to be a global public good, albeit with asymmetrically distributed benefits, often leading to distant states free-riding on the contributions of more geographically proximate states. 

But we know from history that at times in the past, UNHCR has been extremely effective in facilitating collective action by appealing to the interests of governments. Collective action failure is not inevitable. The Indochinese Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) and the International Conference on Refugees in Central America (CIREFCA), both discussed in the book, stand out as such examples. They were partly successful because they involved appealing to a wider set of state interests relating to security and development, for example, and channeling them into a commitment to refugee assistance. UNHCR's ability to play such a brokerage role has become increasingly more difficult because of changes within the international system such as the advent of multi-polarity and the recent rise of populism. But it could still do better, and we try to suggest how. 

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10 Refugee History Archives

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