Refugia: a new transnational polity in the making 2015 - 2020


Over the last three years, the global north has stumbled between welcoming and closing itself to new waves of migration. With more than 65 million people currently uprooted within or outside their countries, and with many of them in limbo for years at a time, policymakers are searching for solutions to the problem of mass displacement. The UN is steering the international community toward global compacts on migration and refugees due to be agreed on by the end of 2018, but while the aims are worthy many wonder if much will 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 and even decades at a time without legitimate means of making a living or leading a decent life.

Against this background, a number of radical proposals have emerged to attempt to resolve refugee and migration challenges, including new nations, city states and free zones. These suggestions have been dismissed as fantasies by commentators; but perhaps such seemingly outlandish proposals should not be dismissed out of hand. We have reviewed several of them and proposed an alternative: a confederal, transnational polity emerging from the connections built up by refugees, with the help of sympathizers, that we have called Refugia. Unlike many of the proposals we have reviewed, we do not envisage this as an island or other bounded territory, but 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. It would be governed by refugees and migrants themselves, and would link refugee and migrant communities globally. The key feature of Refugia is that its different parts are connected, with mobility between them, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In our view such a transnational polity could meet the needs of refugees without compromising too much the interests of states, with a much better outcome for both than the current incoherent and inhuman set-up.

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.




Review and analysis of policy and political philosophy literature



‘The migrant and refugee crisis’, a panel discussion on responses and solutions | Oxford Martin School | Robin Cohen & Nicholas Van Hear | 26/10/2015
Watch the presentation recording here (from 42 minutes)

Imagining Refugia: transnationalism as a durable solution | BICC International Conference Fleeing conflict: trajectories of displaced persons, Bonn | Nicholas Van Hear | 3/11/2016

Imagining Refugia: from Ref-dystopia to Ref-utopia?

  • COMPAS work in progress | Nicholas Van Hear & Robin Cohen | 17/11/2016
  • RSC Conference, Beyond Crisis: Rethinking Refugee Studies, Keble College, Oxford | Nicholas Van Hear | 16-17/03/2017
    Listen to the presentation recording here (from 1.07)

Imagining Refugia: addressing the challenge of global mobility outside the current international architecture | ICMPD/ENIGMMA International Migration Conference, Tbilisi, Georgia | Nicholas Van Hear | 9-12/05/2017

Imagining Refugia: thinking outside the current international refugee and migration architecture | UNU-GCM (Institute on Globalisation, Culture and Mobility) Conference on Migration and Displacement in Contemporary Africa, Barcelona | Nicholas Van Hear | 30/05/2017

Imagining Refugia: thinking outside the current international refugee and migration architecture | UNU Merit seminar, Maastricht | Nicholas Van Hear | 8/06/2017

Pragmatic utopianism: framing a different approach to migration | University of Westminster, London | Robin Cohen & Nicholas Van Hear | 18/09/2017

Imagining Refugia | UNU-WIDER/ARUA conference on migration and mobility The WIDER Development Conference on migration and mobility, jointly organized with the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA), Accra, Ghana | Nicholas Van Hear | 5-6/10/2017

Imagining Refugia: from areas of limited statehood to transnational alter-governance | International workshop on ‘Diasporas and homeland governance: decentering the state as an analytical category’, Collaborative Research Centre on ‘Governance in areas of limited statehood’, Free University of Berlin | Nicholas Van Hear | 3-4/11/2017

Imagining Refugia | Oxford Department of International Development, Oxford (MSc students), QEH | Nicholas Van Hear | 13/11/2017

Imagining Refugia | presentation for the workshop ‘Diasporic Dislocations: Forced Migrations in an Interconnected World’, Migration Institute of Finland, Helsinki | Nicholas Van Hear| 4-5/12/2017

Imagining Refugia | for the workshop ‘Transnational lives: economies, bureaucracies, desires’; workshop hosted by the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), Oslo | Nicholas Van Hear | 11-12/01/2018

Imagining Refugia: thinking outside the current refugee regime | presentation for the Fafo seminar on on the future of the asylum system in Europe, Oslo | Nicholas Van Hear | 26/01/2018

Imagining Refugia | presentation at the Department of Cultures, Politics and Society, University of Torino | Nicholas Van Hear | 1/02/2018

Imagining Refugia: thinking beyond the current migration impasse | the Centre for Development and Emergency Practice (CENDEP) Work in Progress Seminar | Nicholas Van Hear | 1/03/2018

Imagining Refugia: pragmatic utopianism | International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) conference 2018, ‘Whither Refugees?’, Thessaloniki | Nicholas Van Hear | 24-27/07/2018


Rebecca Buxton, Jade Huynh and Theophilus Kwek; Reply to Refugia: Nothing Utopian About an Archipelago of Exclusion, Refugees Deeply | 8/11/2107
Rebecca Buxton, Jade Huynh and Theophilus Kwek are alumni of the University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre (2017)

Heaven Crawley, Why we need to protect refugees from the ‘big ideas’ designed to save them, The Independent, Voices (online) | 28/07/2018


Cohen, R. & Van Hear, N. (2017) ‘Visions of Refugia: territorial and transnational solutions to mass displacement‘, Planning Theory & Practice, 18, 3

Van Hear, N. (forthcoming 2018) ‘Imagining Refugia: thinking outside the current refugee regime’, Migration and Society

Cohen, R. & Van Hear, N. (forthcoming 2019) Refugia: Radical solutions to mass displacement, Routledge


The debate around Refugia is stimulating reflection and discussion in policy, practitioner and civil society circles