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A factory in an industrial park near the Za’atari  camp, Jordan: Some refugees there, unlike those in many other countries, are allowed to work



This book is a rare and wonderful thing: a work of politically engaged scholarship with a trenchant analysis and original solutions.

It deals with one of the most emotional subjects in contemporary politics — what to do about the world’s growing number of refugees — in a humane but hard-headed way. It thereby, although it does not admit to this, provides ample justification for what one might call the new “British model” in refugee management.

It also provides a devastating critique of Angela Merkel’s reckless welcome to Syrians in the summer of 2015, the implications of which have rippled far wider and more destructively than one might imagine.

And what gives the critique of the refugee status quo extra force is that it comes from two people with impeccable records of concern for the world’s most vulnerable; one might almost say that they write from the heart of the liberal academic establishment (though Paul Collier has a recent record of creative transgression).

Their thesis is relatively straightforward. The world currently has 32 significant “displacement” incidents all emanating from the 40 to 60 states (out of 195) that are commonly described as “fragile”. These incidents have caused 65 million people to leave their homes and 21 million to cross international borders to seek safety (only the latter are technically refugees). Some 90 per cent of the 21 million are in neighbouring, mainly poor, countries such as Iran, Ethiopia, Kenya and Pakistan. Less than 10 per cent are in the rich world.

Fewer than half of the refugees are currently in camps, which first became a feature of the refugee experience in the 1980s, with most of the rest trying to get by in the towns and cities of their host countries. The most visible minority of them try to reach rich countries — as more than a million did in 2015 — to take advantage of liberal asylum laws, flanked by hypocritically impenetrable borders that make sure it is hard to do so. So the options, as the authors put it, are: “Encampment, urban destitution, perilous journey.”

This regime is still essentially regulated by an international convention — the 1951 Geneva convention on refugees — and a UN institution, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), that date from the late 1940s and early 1950s and are no longer fit for purpose.

The 1951 convention with its famous phrase “well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion . . .” requires signator countries to accept refugees if they can prove individual persecution and, above all, not to send them back to anywhere unsafe. In its original form the convention applied only to Europe and was essentially a propaganda move in the Cold War, signalling to Soviet dissidents that if they managed to escape they would not be returned. And the UNHCR is a noble sticking plaster institution that just hands out food and shelter to dependent refugees and is chronically underfunded and too hidebound to think afresh about how to improve the camp experience.

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