Refugia Revisited: The Case For A Global Nation Of Exiles

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.

Rohingya refugees at the Thenkhali refugee camp.
Rohingya refugees at the Thenkhali refugee camp.
Nicholas Van Hear


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?

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"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

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