Furthering Refugia: Engaging with our Critics

Published 30 October 2018 / By Nicholas Van Hear

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It is now three years since Robin Cohen and I started to develop the idea of Refugia – a future transnational polity created and governed by refugees, migrants and supportive citizens, and which we imagine could emerge in the interstices of the nation state system over the next decade.

We have pitched the idea jointly and individually at some 17 forums of different kinds to researchers, policy-makers and practitioners in Europe and Africa, and given the idea an airing in North America. Most recently the idea was presented in a panel at the conference of the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) in Thessaloniki, Greece in July 2018.

Broadly speaking these presentations have elicited two kinds of reaction.  The first is to find the idea curious, intriguing, and, even if not wholly convincing, a means of thinking about how to address mass displacement, as well as about what a transnational good society might look like.  The second response is scepticism and suspicion, shading into outright condemnation – in this perspective Refugia is at best a cop-out and at worst a betrayal of refugees, an abhorrent mechanism of containment and exclusion.  Interestingly, the latter reaction was prominent among forced migration researchers at the IASFM conference, as highlighted in this piece for The Independent.

In this blog I briefly address some of these and other critiques. Much fuller answers will eventually appear in our forthcoming book on Refugia.

 Refugia lets nation states off the hook

A common critique is that, were Refugia to be established, it would absolve nation states both individually and collectively from fulfilling their responsibilities to displaced people.  Nation states frequently create the very conditions that lead to displacement, and should clear up their mess, the argument rightly goes.  Moreover nation states have signed up to international legal instruments that oblige them to protect refugees.  This may all be the case, but calling on nation states to step up seems misplaced at best and naïve at worst.  Nation states have rarely fulfilled their responsibilities to refugees set out in international law: the ‘Vietnamese boat people’ debacle of the 1970s and 1980s is perhaps a partial and rare exception.  The nation state system certainly creates displacement, but neither nation states individually nor the nation state system collectively are more than fleetingly disposed to resolve the conflict and displacement that they generate.   And with the world the way it is now, there is almost zero prospect of states fulfilling their obligations.  Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán and Matteo Salvini have openly proclaimed and implemented anti-refugee policies, while liberal politicians are nearly everywhere on the defensive.  How many more decades must Palestinians, Sahrawis, Afghans, Tamils, Somalis, Sudanese, Eritreans, Kurds, Rohingyas, and many other long-displaced people have to wait for nation states to resolve their plight?

A possible alternative direction is some kind of self-initiated and self-managed approach – and this is what we are proposing with Refugia.  We argue that perhaps it’s better to step aside from the current setup and accumulate the power and capacity to manage one’s own affairs in a new kind of polity that seeks accommodation with the nation state system at arm’s length – however uneasy such an accommodation may be.  Refugia would thus seek to assure a just society and a decent life in the interstices of the nation state system. It might even mark the beginning of a transformation of the world of nation states.

 Refugia assumes a commonality among refugees that does not exist and is not desirable

Many critics are rightly sceptical that displacement alone would be sufficient to bind together the populace that would make up the Refugia transnational polity.  Why would a Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh identify with a Syrian refugee in Turkey?  Most refugees ultimately want to escape refugee status, by regaining full citizenship either through return to their homeland, or by making a new home in a new nation state.  Moreover Refugia appears to assume a kind of unity that is lacking given divisions of class, ethnicity, religion, gender, generation and other social cleavages among the displaced, not to mention deep-seated emnities generated in the course of conflict and displacement.  And how would inequities across the different locations that comprise Refugia be addressed?

Refugia would indeed have to address such challenges so as to create a good society in which diverse Refugians are assured of a decent life, as well as forging common identity and purpose.  We recognize that deeply-held ethnic, national, religious and other identities will, at first, persist in parts of Refugia. But our critics underestimate the level of inter-ethnic solidarity forged from similar histories, perilous journeys and co-habitation in soulless camps. We think that a growing common identity and purpose will begin to coalesce in the course of the formation of Refugia.  We see Refugia emerging organically and cumulatively from a socio-political movement which brings together the disparate solidarities and transnational practices that we can see in evidence today.  Those practices and solidarities already embody commitment to various kinds of social justice, imperfect and incomplete though that may be.  Refugia will only emerge if there is a political and not least emotional investment on the part of displaced people and supportive citizens (we like the concept ‘solidarian’ that has emerged in the Greek context) who relish the idea of creating a new society that draws strength from its transnational character.

As well as ethnic, national and religious divisions, there would be of course differences between men and women, young and old, the educated and less-educated.  All societies have to deal with such challenges and Refugia would be no different.  The education system would be crucial here.  We support the idea of a baccalaureate that would be recognised across Refugia and incrementally in ‘host’ states too.  But primary schooling would also be crucial in inculcating an inclusive Refugian identity that would tolerate differences but also provide common ground.  Language would also be key.  At the risk of ethnocentrism, a form of English might be the most feasible common language, but we might also imagine the emergence of some kind of Refugian creole which draws on English, French, Spanish, Arabic and maybe other languages common to areas from which Refugians are drawn.

 Refugia would be a mechanism of containment: ‘another Nauru’

A common concern is that Refugia could easily lead to the international ghettoization of refugees, confined to reservations on poor quality land that no-one else wants, without means of generating income to create decent communities and lead a life worth living.  We recognize the danger of such dystopian nightmares – one such indeed unfolded in 2017-18 on the borders between Myanmar and Bangladesh. The key difference in our vision is that Refugia would be more than the sum of its isolated parts, with the option of mobility among its constituent territories as their political and economic circumstances ebb and flow.

We envisage open movement among Refugiums (the component parts of Refugia), with some mechanisms developed for equitable distribution of people over time given disparities between Refugia locations in terms of wealth and resources.  In other words, Refugians would have the option of moving to other parts of Refugia if they were not happy in a given Refugium.  Moreover, in our vision being a Refugian would not be compulsory: those who do not see their future in Refugia could continue to take their chances with the asylum system of the existing nation state order (and its limited upholding of rights).

As for movement between Refugia and host states, this would have to be negotiated both at the level of the transnational polity, and between individual Refugiums and the states that ‘host’ them.  We do not minimise the difficulties involved, but equally we do not think that the obstacles to such movement are insurmountable.  The enhanced political, economic and moral power that self-organized Refugians can collectively bring to negotiations with host states will turn them from supplicants into agents, albeit with asymmetrical clout. We acknowledge that this option may be far from perfect, but it would at least provide an improvement on the current practices of neglect, containment and incarceration.

The viability of such a transnational polity is doubtful

As well as the need for a shared vision and shared values to bring out a common identity and sense of purpose among Refugia’s populace, the transnational polity would of course need to be economically viable.  Our utopianism is pragmatic enough to recognise that there would have to be compromises, not least on the economic front, and especially in the early stages.  Hence some Refugians may indeed perforce have to accept exploitative conditions in host states (as is the case now).  Over time though, distance work involving services and products of a digital kind combined with an internally-generated economy would diminish such dependence with the emergence of a self-sustaining economy.  The multi-sitedness of Refugia will be an asset in the creation of a transnational good society over time, not least in making possible a measure of redistribution of resources across its constituent sites.

Refugia does not address global structural imbalances and the violence they embody

Perhaps the most fundamental criticism is that Refugia does not address the root causes of displacement and indeed other forms of mobility.  In this critique Refugia appears to be a palliative initiative, neglecting structural conditions, the geopolitics of power, the violence of borders, the racial character of displacement, and other systemic dimensions.  We accept that the emergence of Refugia would not directly address the causes of displacement, which indeed derive from the skewed distribution of power globally.  But we do see Refugia as potentially challenging the global order.  It would do this by developing an alternative polity alongside the nation state system, in the apertures of that system. This would be accomplished cumulatively and incrementally without sudden rupture, a gradualist strategy that could see the emergence of a regime somewhere between open borders and free movement within regional associations of nation states.  Given the persistence of nation states for the foreseeable future, we see such a prospect as more likely than an acceptance of free movement or open borders by nation states. Indeed by its very existence, Refugia might offer an alternative to the nation state system.

In our vision, refugees, other migrants, solidarians and host community dissidents will incrementally develop in Refugia a transnational good society in which people and communities can thrive. This may not be utopia, but utopian thinking offers an opportunity at least to dream of such a society and its challenges. We might indeed reverse the charge of ‘utopianism’. Is it not utopian to imagine that nation states will open their hearts and borders to the increasing numbers of displaced people, in opposition to the growing power of right-wing populists, who would violently oppose any such policy? Refugia is perhaps more realistic than it may, at first sight, appear.


An edited version of this blog first appeared on Refugees Deeply on 29 October 2018.