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Security in Mobility: A response to Arc of Protection

Addressing Protracted Displacement

Mobility as protection for people: this is a powerful, provocative, and promising premise advanced by Alex Aleinikoff and Leah Zamore in their book, The Arc of Protection: Toward a New International Refugee Regime. Moreover, their contribution decidedly focuses on the volition and voice of those forced to move from their homes, rather than on the states that receive and fund them.

This manuscript, in one sense, mirrors current thinking among social science scholars in the field, but provides more concrete, legal and potentially applicable analyses of and responses to protracted displacement. The authors juxtapose refugee rights on paper, in international law, with refugee rightlessness in places of long-term human displacement. This vital intervention complements a book that I recently wrote with Wenona Giles (Routledge 2016). Both texts identify the gaping protection gap for refugees whose safety comes second to state interests. Each aims to scale down the state-centric “solutions” for refugees and displaced persons by foregrounding self-authorized strategies to stay safe. Both books endorse humanitarian action as a vital intervention in the short-term to save lives, but criticize it as a long-term protection prospect. Rethinking “security” at the scale of the persons forced to flee, beyond state mantras of “national security” is another common thread.

In chapter one, “The Inconvenient Refugee,” Aleinikoff and Zamore argue that as the concept of refugee has expanded, the protection afforded it has diminished. The international refugee regime “constructs a bargain: hosting states will keep their borders open and house refugees in exchange for cash and camps and the international community will turn a blind eye to protection of rights and granting of membership.” This Faustian trade-off distorts, indeed damages, humanitarian assistance by making it into a “care and maintenance” situation of dependency for refugees. And it raises the magic question: as the authors, ask, how can the humanitarian footprint be decreased without eroding protection for the displaced? This is where the book makes its most important and courageous contribution, offering a distinctive, bold, and expansive definition of international protection and possible ways forward by arguing that mobility can offer increased protection to refugees.

I wholly concur that a broader conception of protection for those forcibly displaced is sorely needed, and that the technical, political reasons for fleeing should not be the basis for whether one receives protection. The 1951 Convention defines refugees narrowly: initially one had to be in Europe, displaced by the events of World War II, and face five grounds of persecution — a basis that foregrounds civil and political rights at the expense of economic, social and cultural ones. If one is escaping violence that a home government cannot or will not stop, the authors contend that this is “necessary flight” and those who leave their homes across an international border are “fleers of necessity.” While I find these terms embody a tautology and strike me as somewhat functionalist in the sociological sense, I still support the contention advanced by Aleinikoff and Zamore.

The point is that people forced to move, to leave their homes and countries deserve to find a safe place to go. The question this begs is, how? By granting them some scope for mobility and access to territories where they are not only allowed in, but allowed to work, to set up a home, to send their children to school, self-authorized modes of protection and security can be realized. As Giles and I argue in chapter four of our book, South Africa does a better than Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania at refugee protection because it allows people to forge livelihoods and get on with living without necessarily granting full political membership or citizenship for those who have fled. Katy Long (2011) argues that one cannot expect many states to offer de jure integration as full citizens for all people forcibly displaced, but “de facto integration,” such as that offered in South Africa, might be the most accessible option. Drawing also on the work of Landau, Kihato, Amit, Duponchel and other scholars based in South Africa, we rehearse the case for creating safe and sustainable conditions by forging livelihoods in urban spaces that afford access to territory of South Africa, if not much more. In other words, the government of South Africa — in large part due to its obligations under the constitution — allows asylum seekers to enter the country, but once in, refugees and other migrants best shed the moniker which has been a touchpoint for xenophobia and violence. Migrants have long been a part of the fabric of South African society, especially in the colonial and apartheid periods. Refugees are a more recent invention, and Landau and Duponchel (2011) show that refugees do not do better than other migrant groups in the four cities they study; rather, migrants with experience in navigating cities do better. In short, Aleinikoff and Zamore would do well to cite more of the vast social science research that supports their argument, especially scholars such as these based in and working on the displacement in the “global South.” Citing more women scholars would also be productive, given their strong representation and contributions in this field.

The core principle of mobility promoted by the authors is the crucial centerpiece of this book:

Indeed, mobility sounds like a radical suggestion only because our thinking is locked into the idea of a system where a refugee is granted protection in a country of first asylum and then must be “resettled” elsewhere if he or she seeks to leave (and refugees who depart a country of first asylum otherwise become “illegal migrants”). But in reality a solution of mobility asks less of other states — a right for a refugee to enter and take up employment or go to school or join a family member. It is not a request for membership.

This idea is indeed radical at the current juncture where most refugees are faced with conditions of protracted displacement.

Voluntary repatriation is at a 30-year low, and local integration in countries of first asylum is increasingly untenable, as the example of Tanzania shows. Just a few years ago Tanzania was heralded as a model for all refugee host countries to learn from: some 165,000 Burundians who were displaced to the country in the 1970s were naturalized, and the balance were returned to Burundi. But more recent waves of Burundian (and other nationalities) refugees have not been welcome so warmly. By the 2000s, closed camps became the norm, and currently, despite ongoing violence in Burundi, Tanzanian President John Magufuli, whose nickname is “Bulldozer,” has pledged to return all Burundians by 2019.

As we contend in our book, the “durable solutions” conjured after World War II are not proving effective in the current context. While resettlement offers high quality protection for the very few, those numbers have been decimated by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to fund resettlement for about 20,000 refugees annually, rather than the 110,000 former President Barack Obama pledged at the 2016 Summit in New York. The language of solutions begets a range of technical fixes that simply reproduce the refugee regime as we know it. A radical change is welcome.

Not until the conclusion does the reader encounter one of the most salient conditions of the authors’ argument: “the New Liberal Consensus.” The Consensus is identified as both problematic and practical in parts, and the authors are vague on which bits they endorse and which parts they eschew. They could be more forceful here in their analysis of the constituent elements and basis for a re-imagined refugee regime. Instead, they say, “the Consensus is actually quite at home with the premises of the approach that has produced the present state of affairs.” In other words, the Consensus endorses the status quo, but the authors emphatically do not. The political dance here is admittedly tricky: how to keep states engaged with refugee and migration issues, respecting their sovereignty, and at the same time making them even more open to accepting “fleers of necessity” through some form of updated, no doubt biometric, Nansen passport.

I agree with Aleinikoff and Zamore that longstanding humanitarian programs are part of the problem with the international refugee regime because such programs supplant a rights-based approach. Indeed, they suspend the human rights of those stuck and serviced by such programs and confine refugees to their regions of origin. Yet the authors fail to link one piece of their earlier critique of neoliberalism and development (in chapter 3) to their concern that the New Liberal Consensus supports the status quo, outlined in chapter 4:

[F]or the last several decades, development policies have pushed host states in a different direction [away from a rights-based liberal welfare state model]. The focus has been on opening up developing economies to global markets and foreign investment, including by rolling back the welfare state and by deregulating the labor market, on the theory that a “rising tide will lift all boats.” But the tide in many host countries has not risen, while the boats off their shores continue to sink.

Current offers by international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, lend hosting states in the global South funds with which to initiate economic development. The idea is that host states can put refugees to work in new production facilities, making them more self-reliant, but this approach of indebting host countries further in order to capitalize on the labour of refugees has been refused by states like Tanzania, which pulled out of the UN Global Compact’s Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF). Why should host states have to pay twice? Once for hosting refugees on their territory and then again for a loan to make them self-reliant?!

Just as humanitarian programs distort long-term access to rights, make-work development projects that purport to enhance host state prosperity and make refugees less of a burden to host states damage the meaning and practice of refugee protection. More than 50 years ago, W. W. Rostow declared that development was a geopolitical tool and part of a “non-Communist manifesto” on how to prosper in the free world; it was the carrot to help First World states forge allies with countries in the Non-Aligned Movement, or Third World. Now that First World capitalism has prevailed, forging allies along ideological lines is not necessary. Yet, many countries in the former “Third World” remain poor and still need loans. Leveraging their willingness to take refugees in return for concessionary loans or start-up factories in special economic zones is very questionable. More than two decades of research on the impact of debt, structural adjustment programs, and export-led industrialization for citizens in borrowing countries has shown very mixed results. States may pay off loans, but citizens and indigenous businesses and industries pay the price in economic, social and environmental terms. Adding refugees into the mix is an even more rightless prospect.

The authors offer a sobering observation:

Today, more displaced persons are being assisted by more actors in more ways than at any time in history. It is thus an extreme irony that the system is largely in disarray, betraying its founding principles and enduring goals. A regime designed to put people back on their feet keeps them on their knees. A system of protection intended to guarantee the return to normal life has produced a surreal existence for the vast majority of displaced persons, condemned to life in extreme poverty and perpetual limbo. The country of first asylum—the place of rescue—has become, for most refugees, a place of confinement where they are both locked in and locked out: unable to return safely home and forbidden to move elsewhere, they are also denied entry into economic opportunities and social programs in hosting communities.

The status quo “fails refugees because it denies them agency and dignity and condemns them to lives of poverty.” The authors have boldly said what many other scholars, practitioners, and other actors are thinking but may not have the courage to write: allow those forced to flee their homes and countries to move to where they can best rebuild their lives.

Jennifer Hyndman is Professor and Director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University in Toronto. Her research focuses on the geopolitics of forced migration, the biopolitics of refugee camps, humanitarian responses to war and displacement, and refugee resettlement in North America.

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Jennifer Hyndman

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