What if the world's refugees could be organized into a loosely connected, transnational polity? Critics call it a pipe dream. But migration researcher Nicholas Van Hear says his 'Refugia' idea may be the best way out of current crisis.
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 that we imagine could emerge over the next decade in the interstices of the nation-state system.
So far we have elicited two kinds of reaction. The first finds the idea intriguing, if not wholly convincing, but sees in it at least a useful way of thinking about the future. The second response is skepticism and suspicion, the view that Refugia is at best a cop-out and at worst a betrayal of refugees. We want to respond here to the five main ways in which Refugia has been criticized or questioned.
1. Refugia lets nation states off the hook
Refugia 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 naive at worst. Nation states have rarely fulfilled their responsibilities to refugees set out in international law. The nation-state system certainly creates displacement, but nation-states are neither individually nor collectively more than fleetingly disposed to resolve the conflict and displacement they generate. And with the world the way it is now, there is almost zero prospect of states fulfilling their obligations. Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, 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, Somalis, Sudanese, 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. We argue that perhaps it is 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.
2. Refugia assumes a commonality among refugees that does not exist and is not desirable
Many critics are rightly skeptical 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 a return to their homeland or by making a new home in a new nation-state. And how would inequities across the different locations that comprise Refugia be addressed?
United Nations flags in Geneva — Photo: Tom Page
Refugia would indeed have to address such challenges so as to create a good society in which diverse Refugians were assured of a decent life, as well as forging a common identity and purpose. We recognize that deeply held ethnic, national, religious and other identities will at first persist. But our critics underestimate the level of interethnic solidarity forged from similar histories, perilous journeys and cohabitation in soulless camps. We see Refugia emerging organically and cumulatively from a sociopolitical movement that brings together the disparate solidarities and transnational practices. We already see evidence of commitment to various kinds of social justice, imperfect and incomplete though that may be. We like the concept of "solidarian" that has emerged in Greece.
As well as ethnic, national and religious divisions, there would of course be differences between men and women, young and old, 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 recognized across Refugia and incrementally in "host" states, too. 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.
3. Refugia would be a mechanism of containment: "another Nauru"
Could Refugia lead to the international ghettoization of refugees, confined to poor-quality land that no one else wants? We recognize the danger. It is already unfolding 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). In other words, Refugians would have the option of moving to other parts of Refugia if they were not happy in a given Refugium. 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.
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. This would be difficult but not impossible. 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.
4. The viability of such a translational polity is doubtful
The transnational polity would of course need to be economically viable. Our utopianism is pragmatic enough to recognize that there would have to be compromises, not least on the economic front — and especially in the early stages. Some Refugians might have to accept exploitative conditions in host states, but that 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.
Multi-sitedness 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.
5. 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. It is a palliative initiative, neglecting structural conditions, geopolitics, the violence of borders and the racial character of displacement.
We accept that the emergence of Refugia would not directly address the causes of displacement. But we do see it as potentially challenging the global order. It would do this by developing an alternative polity alongside the nation state 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. We see such a prospect as more likely than an acceptance of free movement or open borders by nation states.
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?