Refugia: a new transnational polity in the making

2015 - 2025
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What can and what should be done about mass displacement? Around 70 million people are currently displaced within or outside their countries, many of them in limbo for years or decades at a time: solutions to their plight have long proved elusive. In the wake of the refugee and migration crisis of 2015-16, the international community agreed global compacts on migration and refugees towards the end of 2018. But while the aims of the compacts are worthy, many wondered if much would come of them based on the record of similar international agreements so far. Nor is there much confidence that the current refugee architecture is up to the task: the three conventional solutions to displacement—repatriation of refugees, their local integration, or their resettlement—seem unable address the challenge on the scale needed. Only a small proportion of the displaced find their situation resolved through such pathways: most languish in camps or are self-settled in cities in precarious and constrained circumstances for years without legitimate means of making a living or leading a decent life.

Against this background, a number of new proposals have emerged to attempt to resolve refugee and migration challenges, including new nations, city states, regional initiatives, and free zones. Some of the more radical of these suggestions have been dismissed as fantasies by commentators, but perhaps such seemingly outlandish proposals should not be rejected out of hand. We have reviewed several of them and proposed an alternative that we have called Refugia: a confederal, transnational polity emerging from the connections built up by refugees, with the help of sympathizers. Unlike many of the proposals that we have reviewed, we do not envisage this as an island or other bounded territory. Rather Refugia would be a linked set of territories and spaces connecting refugees into a polity that is neither a new nation state nor simply an international organization, but has some characteristics of both: a new kind of transnational polity, governed by refugees and migrants themselves. There would be mobility among the constituent parts of Refugia, which would link refugee and migrant communities globally: moreover the whole would be greater than the sum of its parts.

We argue that such a transnational polity is already imperfectly prefigured in many of the transnational practices that refugees and migrants deploy and the environments in which they find themselves today. Camps and communities in countries neighbouring conflicts, neighbourhoods in global cities, transnational political practices and money transfers, emergent communities in disparate locations en route: all are fragments that taken separately do not seem to promise much. But cumulatively they could add up to Refugia, imperfectly prefigured. Consolidating them into a common polity might prove to be a way out of the current impasse.

We set out our vision in our book Refugia: radical solutions to mass displacement, published by Routledge in 2020.

Principal Investigator

Nicholas Van Hear
Robin Cohen