Collier, Refugees and The Point of No Return

 Paul Collier’s Exodus: Immigration and Multicultursim in the 21st century has quickly gathered headlines and attention in the months since it’s been published. Two pages in The Economist; 8 in the New Statesman (and a front cover). Op-eds on both sides of the Atlantic. Here, after all, is a renowned Oxford Professor with a message that’s attractive to both public and politicians.  In Collier’s view, worrying about the migration of the poor isn’t just the self-interest of the rich.  In fact, it’s not a right so much as a duty to restrict migration, because the poor should be stopped from moving for their own good ­– or at least the good of their community.
Collier tells us that in cutting adrift the ‘chain of lifeboats headed for the developing world’, and restricting migration from the poorest societies, we’re really doing the poor a favour, saving their struggling societies from a future without the ‘fairy godmothers’ who would otherwise escape beyond the borders – the educated, the young, and the ambitious seeking a life beyond conflict and poverty.  In essence, it’s protectionism resurrected: with visas guarding human capital, in place of cars and steel tariffs shielding nascent industrial capacity.
This troubles me, although for weeks I’ve struggled to work out where to begin to unpick Collier’s assertions.  This is not for a lack but a surfeit of entry points. For all the heavyweight intellectual reputation on which Exodus rests, there’s often not a lot of expertise on migration underpinning it – and this leads Collier to some seriously flawed conclusions.
Some of my unease, in the end, is about the fundamentals, the values that underpin Collier’s work. Should people be tied to nations not of their choosing, when the World Bank estimates 50% of our wealth is determined not by any conscious action we take, but by the citizenship we’re assigned arbitrarily at birth?  Another part of my concern is probably the disquiet of someone who works on the complex, messy realities that are lived between and beneath migration policies, rather than economist’s models. That’s not to say I think policy doesn’t matter – it really does – but some of the policy prescriptions that follow from Collier’s observations are startlingly naïve, the product of neat laboratory hypotheses in which it’s imagined that governments’ string-pulling and fence-raising can really control immigration.
In some places this is disappointing: in others settings, it’s dangerous.  And none more so than when Collier deals with refugees and repatriation, something I spent five years researching. Collier considers the subject almost as an afterthought, on pages 262-3 of his 273 page book, but the arguments were reproduced much more prominently in Sunday’s New York Times. In Collier’s own words, the essential claim is that ‘the right to refuge need not imply the right to residency’.  In short, ‘a fit-for-purpose migration policy would target asylum on those few countries in the throes of civil war, brutal dictatorship, minority persecution or equivalent severe social disturbance’.  Asylum would be granted ‘swiftly and generously’: but ‘when peace is restored, people would be required to return’, so that ‘the right to refuge could include sunset rules linked to peace settlements and the monitored efforts of post-conflict governments’.
How neat it sounds: what a pity that the facts don’t fit.
In fact, this is exactly the same type of thinking that Sir John Hope-Simpson warned fellow statesmen against in the 1930s, when Europe dreamed of repatriating the Jews, writing again and again that ‘a programme of action cannot be based on uncontrollable speculation’. For here’s the truth: refugees rarely get to ride off into the sunset.  Today, the average refugee spends 17 years in exile. Two decades ago they spent nine.Cycles of conflicts in places like Somalia, Congo and Afghanistan haven’t been broken in decades.  We should all hope for peace: rejoice in the rare cases when swift return proves practicable, or when war ends.  But to suggest that we should deny the right to residency in the interim two decades? That’s to place lives in legal limbo.  To suggest the children of refugees should be required to return to a home they’ve never visited, a community whose language they do not speak?  That’s to ignore the inevitability of integration and social transformation in spite of the prohibitions of the law. This is policy in no one’s interest, even if it chimes with political wishes.
What’s more, our politicians are poor prophets. In 2003, then-UK Home-Secretary David Blunkett asserted that ‘when you are no longer threatened… there is a moral obligation to return and assist in the rebuilding of [your]country’.  He was talking about Iraqi refugees who had fled Saddam’s now-toppled dictatorship – but speaking just months before the bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad heralded the descent of Iraqi into vicious civil war. There are already legal provisions – known as the cessation clauses – that allow for an end to refugee status.  Governments already often engage in linguistic gymnastics in order to escape the weight of the “refugee” label. As early as 1996, Germany chose to deport Bosnians provided with ‘temporary protection’ during the Balkan conflicts.  But peace and war are not binaries: the very South Sudanese officials who Collier reports bemoaning their educated citizens’ expat tendencies are ignoring the fact that peace has been a long time coming to South Sudan, and that it is still not certain.  It also ignores the uncomfortable fact that quite a few post-conflict governments tend to be run by previously expat elites with rather autocratic leanings.  Rwanda and Afghanistan, in different ways, are reminders that elites are rarely united, and “peace dividends” are rarely shared equitably.
Yet what makes me most angry about Collier’s high-minded view that ‘the duty of rescue does not absolve high-income society from the duty to think through the implications of their policies’ is that his own reasoning doesn’t stand up to this scrutiny.  We can all agree that, when peace comes, we should want to encourage sustainable returns of refugees, including elites.  But in all the conversations I’ve had with refugees and policy-makers, no-one has suggested that the best way to achieve this is to turn repatriation into an obligatory burden.  In fact, quite the opposite is true: it’s often in having that second passport that refugees find the courage to return.  Exit strategies make return a possibility. Safety nets are essential for refugee returns to succeed as state-building. We should be granting more refugees dual citizenship: do this, and we’d see more returns.
Collier writes about refugees in the black-and-white of classroom print, but there are just too many gaps to justify such confidence on his part.  Last Friday, at a debate in Oxford, Collier was asked by an M.Sc. student what he thought his argument meant for non-refoulement – the prohibition against forced return which, as anyone who’s ever worked on refugee issues knows, is the basic building block of our refugee protection regime. Collier did not recognise the term.
Given the power Collier has to speak and be heard, such a failure to learn the basic contours of what we already know about refugee return is not just careless, it’s irresponsible. For there are plenty out there who would gladly work non-refoulement into something less absolute: who would happily insist on revoking all refugees’ rights to remain at the first sign of a fragile peace. Collier’s reasoning allows them to claim this is all done in the interest of refugees’ themselves, a benign exercise of imperial power.  I doubt this is Collier’s intention. But in the end it’s refugees, not us, who have to make such journeys: and good intentions if poorly conceived can pave long roads to hell.

    2 Comments on “Collier, Refugees and The Point of No Return

    1. This is very good. Especially this:
      But in all the conversations I’ve had with refugees and policy-makers, no-one has suggested that the best way to achieve this is to turn repatriation into an obligatory burden. In fact, quite the opposite is true: it’s often in having that second passport that refugees find the courage to return. Exit strategies make return a possibility.

      I sympathize with your struggle in finding a launch point for criticizing Collier’s book …

    2. This is very good and thanks.Refugees are maybe used to the hugely contradictory demands they face. This is a retread, surely of the “you must integrate immediately” demand vs “do not take our jobs/homes/daughters” contradiction: the demand that refugees behave with proper gratitude and love the country of exile but not so much that they will not leap at the chance of return as soon as it appears. I am biased: I would not exist if my father had returned when “peace” came to Czechoslovakia in 1945. My daughters would be fatherless if he had returned to Chile in 1989 when he could. But they didn’t, they carried on living in this difficult place, dealing with the racism, making scientific discoveries, cleaning universities, paying taxes, campaigning for human rights. And sometimes visiting the country where they were born.