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Reply to Refugia: Nothing Utopian About an Archipelago of Exclusion

Two Oxford professors floated a proposal for Refugia, a transnational union of self-governing refugee communities. In response, their former students argue that the idea would allow countries to further shirk their obligations and push refugees out of sight and mind.

Written by Rebecca Buxton, Jade Huynh and Theophilus Kwek Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
A young Rohingya refugee waits for her mother, who has gone to collect relief aid at the Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Ukhia district on November 6, 2017. DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images

The mass displacement of Rohingya from Myanmar has once again demonstrated that the international refugee regime is stretched to its limits. With funding cuts and increasingly hostile policies in the U.S. and Europe, academics and policymakers are seeking a new approach to the global refugee crisis.

In a recent article, Oxford University academics Professor Robin Cohen and Nicholas Van Hear introduce a radical solution: a transnational, deterritorialized union called “Refugia,” a loosely connected archipelago of self-governing, self-sustaining refugee communities, situated within existing countries.

From refugee camps to self-built housing estates, these various communities would be governed by a virtual, transnational assembly chosen by “Refugians” worldwide who would hold dual affinities to Refugia and their states of residence. A smart card or “Sesame Pass” would allow international movement between the various locations and grant access to credits, entitlements and the right to work. This system would afford the displaced a chance to attain peace, employment and contentment in “a self-chosen home.”

Cohen and Van Hear are right to point out that the current refugee policy framework has failed many of the world’s displaced. So-called “durable solutions” – voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement – are out of reach for many. Nearly 11.6 million refugees have been in exile for five years or more.

However, the reasons for these failures are not inherent, but political. These solutions are failing because states, particularly in the global north, are not willing to accept their moral responsibilities toward refugees. There is a strong danger that a proposal such as Refugia would let them shirk those responsibilities further. Encouraging states to create zones of alternative governance for refugees would allow them to suspend their legal and moral duties toward refugees.

Concern about right-wing and populist sentiments within northern countries forms part of the impetus behind the Refugia proposal. In another article, Cohen and Van Hear state that they “think it is unrealistic, not to say naive, to [urge] countries to show kindness and openness,” arguing that we must move beyond our traditional mechanisms of refugee protection. The Refugia alternative essentially entails giving up on enforcing these duties altogether, and appealing instead to xenophobia and the politics of exclusion.

We cannot separate the Refugia proposal from the growing externalization of asylum. States have bypassed their protection obligations to asylum seekers and refugees by creating extraterritorial spaces of detention, such as Australia’s so-called “Pacific Solution” in Nauru and Manus Island. Refugia gives states a similar extraterritorial solution. Instead of true freedom of movement, Refugians would merely move between centers and camps, never bothering those lucky enough to reside outside those areas.

While the Refugia proposal uses the rhetoric of empowerment, including a “bottom-up” and “refugee-led” approach, at its core it would allow the international community to shift the duty of governing the displaced onto the displaced themselves. Refugia makes some of the world’s most vulnerable individuals responsible for their own care.

We also cannot say whether refugees would want this form of solution. It is not clear whether Van Hear and Cohen have asked them. They envision Refugia as the outcome of a “tacit grand bargain” between states and refugees, but we should question the extent to which refugees’ genuine voices and wishes would factor into the ultimate outcome of such a bargain.

Another issue with Refugia is that it assumes some shared identity in being a refugee. The idea of creating a new polity that depends upon the experience of refugeehood assumes that there is such a thing as “the refugee experience,” but there are as many different refugee experiences as there are refugees. Refugia assumes that, by virtue of their shared displacement, refugees spread across the globe will be able and willing to achieve shared emplacement. A sense of belonging and civic identity to an artificial transnational polity cannot simply be wished into existence.

Van Hear and Cohen have described Refugia as a “pragmatic utopia.” But a solution that suggests refugees should be kept elsewhere is not utopian. Instead, it appeals to the exclusionary tendencies of nation-states, which have already forced so many people into camps and detention centers and worsened global inequality. Instead of reinforcing the barriers, walls and barbed-wire fences, it is time to open our doors to refugees. Not as a nation set apart from ourselves, but as equals in our midst.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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