Future-proofing: the state and refugee protection



Refugee protection is broken. So what comes next?

By now, a thousand Op Eds have called for bold and creative thinking in order to solve Syria’s refugee crisis – or rather to end Europe’s migration “crisis” (which is not quite the same thing). We have had calls for resettlement and relocation; for international conferences; for humanitarian visas and special migration programmes. Lawyers have argued the case for seizing Syrian assets;. Entrepreneurs have advocated for the founding of a new state, “Refugia”. Politicians have made the case for just bombing the smugglers’ boats.

There is no shortage of new ideas – and, increasingly, new initiatives too. But of course, what we should do and what we have done are worlds apart. And when history judges the world’s response to the refugee and migrants crises of 2015, it will not absolve us. The verdict will be one of catastrophic inaction.

Yet 2015 may also be a turning point in our understanding of what refugee protection is. We know – all of us – that the current system is no longer fit for purpose. But what comes next is harder. The hawks talk about crushing the smugglers and protecting borders; the doves about letting the huddled masses in. Too often in the last few months those two positions have appeared irreconcilable, with refugees the losers.

However amidst the noise of Op Eds and panel discussions and pilot projects, all anxious to stress original innovation, I think we can detect the shape of things to come. Perhaps the most important development is the extent to which so many of these new ideas about “protection” are writing out the state in favour of the market.

So if states will not fund more resettlement places for refugees, why not allow individuals, civil society and the private sector to sponsor refugees, requiring states to offer minimal direct assistance? Canada’s programme has received unparalleled attention: lobbyists are seeking to develop similar plans in the US. Other private actors have similarly stepped in where the state has failed. Swedish entrepreneurs have challenged the state to enforce carrier sanctions by founding Swedish “Refugee Air”  .The Catrambone family established “Migrant Off Shore Aid” – and have so far saved 11,680 lives. Others have turned to the technology-enabled “sharing economy” to organize accommodation for refugees and aid workers.

Some speak the language of market economics: tax breaks, special economic zones, labour visas. Some prefer to talk about community and solidarity. After all, the outpouring of public sympathy for Syria’s refugees has offered rare comfort in the face of state hostility. I have lost count of the number of friends and acquaintances – previously with only the vaguest of interest in refugee crises – who have organized their own aid drives, insisting “Refugees Welcome” must be more than cheap rhetoric.

But the common thread is that the conversations I have right now are increasingly not about what states can do. They are about what private citizens, local governments, religious organisations, universities, businesses and NGOs can do.

Even solutions which appear to turn on reasserting state power: bombing smugglers, building walls and even creating new states like “Refugia” are arguably interventions that speak to the failure of existing “national” sovereignties and rely upon the logic of market disruption.

Of course, some of this is not so new. NGOs are, by definition, not part of the state. The principle of independence is (in theory) central to humanitarian action. And it’s important not to overstate the shift. Borders and visas are still jealously guarded by governments: responding to refugee crises is still a question of state action. In a world where citizenship is a perquisite for the “right to have rights”, states remain the ultimate guarantor of human rights and basic safety. The market can offer you assistance: it can’t offer you protection without the backstop of the law.

But as governments roll back the extent to which they assist their own citizens, it’s difficult to believe that refugees will not be asked to depend upon market forces too. My guess is that the protection system which will eventually emerge from the rubble of the 1951 Refugee Convention is one in which states have less responsibility towards refugees, certainly in terms of social and economic protection.

This could be disastrous. If governments seek to retain control who can assist refugees and how — while building walls to keep refugees out – existing state failures will be compounded.

But it could also be an opportunity to build a thicker sort of protection. The space vacated by the state could be filled with community actors, building direct solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers. Access to markets could provide refugees with autonomy and dignity to a much greater extent than a life encamped and dependent upon aid.

I do not believe in a smaller state. I believe in a better state. We should not stop calling for states to do more: they should. But humanitarian action is not about ideals. We cannot expect that they will listen. When it comes to refugee protection and assistance right now, states are already in retreat. And this means we also need to advocate for states to follow the logic of their own free-market, small government, big society theory, so that government regulations and visa policies don’t prevent others assisting refugees even as they refuse to.

Fortune-telling is no science. But right now, it is clear refugee protection is broken. And I think it’s all-but-inevitable that more reliance upon civil society and private actors is what follows. So the challenge is to meet this brave new world with ideas that make protection work with minimal input from the state. How exactly do we do that? A much harder question to answer. I’m still waiting for the crystal ball to clear – and in the meantime, answers in an op-ed, please.