Source: Eurostat

Alexander Betts and
Paul Collier


Transforming a Broken Refugee System


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Allen Lane is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at

Penguin Random House UK

First published 2017

Copyright © Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, 2017

The moral right of the authors has been asserted

Cover illustration © David Foldveri

Photograph of Alex Betts © Tony Kerr

Photograph of Paul Collier © John Cairns

ISBN: 978-0-241-28924-2


List of Illustrations

Map: Distribution of Syrian Refugees

Graphs: Distribution of Asylum-Seekers in the EU

How We Came to Write This Book



1 Global Disorder

2 The Time-Warp

3 The Panic


4 Rethinking Ethics: The Duty of Rescue

5 Rethinking Havens: Reaching Everyone

6 Rethinking Assistance: Restoring Autonomy

7 Rethinking Post-Conflict: Incubating Recovery

8 Rethinking Governance: Institutions That Work


9 Back to the Future



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List of Illustrations

  1. Graph: where refugees from top five countries of origin found asylum.
  2. Women walk between buildings damaged by the civil war in Homs, Syria. (Copyright © Louai Beshara/Getty Images)
  3. The newly built Azraq refugee camp, northern Jordan. (Copyright © Khalil Mazraawi/Getty Images)
  4. Syrian refugees in Beirut, Lebanon. (Copyright © Ivor Prickett/UNHCR)
  5. Satellite imagery of Hagadera, one of the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya. (Copyright © DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d/Getty Images)
  6. Congolese women in the Nyarugusu refugee camp, Tanzania. (Copyright © A. Betts)
  7. Juru market in Nakivale settlement, Uganda. (Copyright © A. Betts)
  8. The Shams-Élysées market street in the Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan. (Copyright © L. Bloom)
  9. A makeshift bird shop in the Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan. (Copyright © L. Bloom)
  10. A community radio station run by a Congolese refugee in Nakivale settlement, Uganda. (Copyright © R. Nuri)
  11. Refugees making biodegradable sanitary pads at a refugee camp in Uganda. (Copyright © L. Bloom)
  12. Refugee and local tailors work alongside one another in Kampala, Uganda. (Copyright © N. Omata)
  13. A factory in the King Hussein bin Talal Development Area (KHBTDA) in Jordan.
  14. Syrian men attempt to reach Europe by boat via the Aegean Sea. (Copyright © Achilleas Zavallis/UNHCR)
  15. A woman and child wait at a border-crossing in Slovenia. (Copyright © Maja Hitij/DPA/PA Images)


Where refugees from top 5 countries of origin found asylum | end-2015
Source: UNHCR
Women walk between destroyed buildings in the government-held Jouret al-Shiah neighbourhood of the central Syrian city of Homs.
Syrian children at the recently designed Azraq refugee camp in northern Jordan.
A Syrian family living in urban destitution in an apartment block in Beirut, Lebanon.
Satellite imagery of the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya, which host nearly 350,000 Somali refugees.
Congolese women selling dried fish and vegetables in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania, where refugees have no legal right to work.
The bustling Juru market in Nakivale settlement in Uganda, created in 1958 and home to refugees from Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda.
The Shams-Élysées market street in Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. Its name is a play on words that combines the old name for Syria with the famous Parisian avenue.
A makeshift bird shop in the home of a Syrian family in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. The camp was created in response to the Syrian civil war and hosts around 83,000 people.
Demou-Kay, a Congolese refugee, running his community radio station in Nakivale settlement in Uganda.
Refugees making biodegradable sanitary pads at a social enterprise in Kyaka II settlement in Uganda.
Refugee and local tailors working alongside one another in Kampala. Uganda is one of the few developing countries that gives refugees the right to work.
A factory in the King Hussein bin Talal Development Area (KHBTDA) in Jordan, one of the economic zones where Syrians are gradually being allowed to work.
Syrian men embark on the perilous journey across the Aegean Sea. Around 8,500 people drowned crossing the Mediterranean in 2015 and 2016.
A woman and child refugee from Syria wait at the border to Austria in Sentilj, Slovenia.
Source: UNHCR

How We Came to Write This Book

The collaboration behind this book dates back to an invitation. By early 2015 Jordan was confronting the day-to-day reality of a broken global refugee system. Familiar with our work, a Jordanian think tank, WANA, asked us to come and brainstorm with the government. Neither of us was a Middle East expert: our main geographical interest is in Africa. We were also both outsiders to the narrow range of academic disciplines that have dominated the study of refugees: we are neither lawyers nor anthropologists. Paul is an economist and Alex is a political scientist, though we have each regularly trespassed across the boundary between the two fields. Although Paul had long worked on development and conflict, he had not applied it to the context of refugees. Conscious of ‘do no harm’, he routinely turned down requests to stray into unfamiliar territory and would have done so with this one. But to Alex the subject of refugees was not unfamiliar territory: it was his life’s work. By 2015 he was directing the world’s largest centre for refugee studies, at Oxford University. We became a team.

Arriving in Jordan that April, we found that with WANA we had landed on our feet. Its Director, Erica Harper, had all the knowledge of context that we lacked: and more, for her husband was the Director of UNHCR in Jordan. Andrew’s impressive combination of vigour and intelligence was required: facing mounting needs and diminishing resources, his job was becoming impossible. Through Erica and Andrew we had ready access to the knowledge and networks we needed to remedy our own areas of ignorance.

We pitched an initially exploratory idea. The government of Jordan imposed the typical restrictions on refugees: they were not allowed to work. Jordan was also typical of many middle-income countries: not sufficiently poor to qualify for aid, but struggling to break beyond its current income level. We wondered whether the influx of refugees could be reconceived from being a burden to an opportunity for a new engagement with the international community. We floated the idea with NGOs, international organizations, and the government – all of whom were greatly frustrated by the dwindling levels of international support for refugees.

We visited Za’atari refugee camp, which reeked of lives on hold: a theme that will haunt this book. But in the course of our visit, serendipity lent a hand. With time to kill, our Jordanian official host suggested that we might care to see something entirely different of which the government was proud: just a brief detour. A mere fifteen minutes away, there it was: a different world. The King Hussain bin Talal Development Area (KHBTDA) had had £100m spent on it: a huge, well-equipped economic zone intended to attract business to this part of the country. The war across the border had intervened and it was only 10 per cent occupied: Jordanians didn’t want to work there.

So, for four years, up to 83,000 refugees had sat in enforced idleness while fifteen minutes away a huge zone was empty for lack of workers. The combined intellectual resources of two Oxford professors managed to add two and two: with some appropriate international support, everyone could be better off. We soon realized that the idea could be extended around the country: there were zones and refugees all over the place. And was Jordan unique? Perhaps the same approach could work elsewhere. Of course, it was not a panacea: any conceivable initiative is going to face many practical impediments. But it was worth piloting in a few places. The Jordanian government was interested: it was time to move from an idea to a practical policy.

The typical lag between an academic idea and practical implementation is either years or eternity. But by the summer of 2015 the refugee situation was escalating into crisis: we needed a shortcut. We decided to write pieces that would be published quickly and read widely. By August we had the cover story of The Spectator, and by November a flagship piece in Foreign Affairs. They got noticed and, faute de mieux, their ideas were taken up. By January 2016 they were being pitched to the world’s business leaders at Davos. By February, they were adopted officially at a conference in London jointly convened by the King of Jordan, David Cameron and the President of the World Bank. The so-called Jordan Compact launched a pilot project to create 200,000 jobs for Syrian refugees alongside Jordanian nationals, including in some of the economic zones. The success of that pilot now depends on the politicians.

But we wanted to broaden the scope of our reflection beyond Jordan. Behind the Jordan-related brainstorming lay a set of ideas for how to rethink a failing refugee system. Our approach is not simply to roll out the Jordanian pilot: all contexts are different. But there are broader ideas to carry forward: the argument that refuge is as much a development issue as a humanitarian issue, the focus on restoring refugees’ autonomy through jobs and education, the emphasis on creating sustainable safe havens in the countries that host the majority of the world’s refugees, the recognition of a role for business alongside government and civil society, and the desire to reconsider refugee assistance for a world utterly different from that for which the existing refugee system was originally designed.

Our original visit to Jordan coincided almost exactly with the start of the European ‘refugee crisis’. That April, 700 people – mainly from refugee-producing countries – drowned crossing the Mediterranean, in what began a year of unprecedented refugee movements to Europe. The 1 million refugees to arrive in Europe during 2015 triggered an unheard-of demand for creative policy responses. And yet the more time elapsed, and the worse the crisis became, the greater the vacuum of policy ideas seemed to become.

By the end of 2015 there was almost unanimity that the existing refugee system was broken, and that a new approach was needed. But the vision was lacking. It was at that point that Laura Stickney from Penguin approached us with the idea for us to co-author a book on the refugee crisis to explain its origins and propose practical solutions. After some reflection – both of us already had significant writing commitments – we embraced the suggestion, recognizing it as an opportunity to outline our ideas in detail and contribute to the search for a more effective refugee system, fit for purpose in the twenty-first century.

Our goal has been to write for a generalist audience, to engage intelligent and interested members of the public keen to understand the origins of the ‘refugee crisis’ and to explore with us ideas for workable solutions. We also hope that a part of our readership will be policy-makers themselves. This work is not intended to be esoteric or idealistic; it aspires to be practical and realistic. It seeks to work with the constraints and opportunities of the contemporary world, and to channel them into a system that can provide refugees with autonomy and dignity, while meeting the concerns of host communities and the imperatives of democratic scrutiny.

All academic co-authors bring different starting points to a collaboration. We have been asked how two authors who have expressed different perspectives on aspects of migration came to agree on the book’s core arguments. The answer is that we discussed, deliberated and debated. We reasoned through, based on the evidence, until we reached agreement. Both of us found this enriching and enlightening, and often ended up rethinking our original positions.

In writing the book we have tried to strike a balance between the responsibility to write thoughtfully and accurately on an issue that affects people’s lives, and the urgency to engage. Most of the writing was done during the summer of 2016. We are especially grateful to our families, and above all Emily and Pauline – who also read and commented on several drafts – for their willingness to sacrifice a large part of our summer to writing.

We are also grateful to several of our colleagues, in Oxford and beyond, who have directly or indirectly shaped ideas in the book. These include Elizabeth Collett, Stefan Dercon, Matthew Gibney, James Milner, Naohiko Omata, and Olivier Sterck. More generally, Paul is grateful to colleagues at the Blavatnik School of Government and Alex to those at the Refugee Studies Centre and the Department of International Development. Finally, we’d like to thank James Pullen at the Wiley Agency for enabling us to place our ideas in the hands of our excellent publishers, and Laura Stickney at Penguin for her exceptional editing of the manuscript.


We live in disturbed times. There are more people displaced than at any time since the Second World War. Most of these 65 million uprooted people remain within their own countries, but nearly a third – over 20 million – had no alternative but to cross a border. When they did, they became refugees.

They are fleeing mass violence in chronically fragile states like Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Refugees are not like other migrants: they are not moving for gain but because they have no choice. They are seeking safety abroad. For the most part, refugees stay in the countries close to home. Almost 90 per cent of refugees are in havens in the developing world, and just ten of these countries host around 60 per cent of the world’s refugees. Several of them – countries like Iran, Ethiopia, and Jordan – have been repeat hosts over decades. These havens are not atypically generous: they are simply located in a ‘rough neighbourhood’.

Until recently, the world largely ignored the plight of refugees. The default response was for rich countries to wait for an emergency and then contribute money to the United Nations humanitarian system. This money was spent on establishing refugee camps providing food, clothing, and shelter until people could go home. These camps were always designed as if they were just for the short term. Invariably refugees lack the right to work or move freely; but being out of sight, they were out of mind. This might have made sense if refugees were able to go home relatively soon. But since the end of the Cold War, the average duration of exile has been over a decade and so the default response has been hopeless. Condemning millions of people to wasting their lives, this approach has contrived the rare folly of being both inhumane and expensive.

Then suddenly in April 2015 something changed. Something happened that was so alarming that the world woke up. There had been no overnight escalation in the number of refugees in the world. What changed was that, for the first time, refugees moved spontaneously in large numbers from the poorer regions of the world to the richest. With mass violence in Syria since 2011, some 10 million people had been displaced: 6 million within their own country and 4 million to neighbouring countries. Initially most had not moved further afield than Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. But since there are limited opportunities for Syrian refugees in those countries, the dynamic began to change.

For the first time in its history, Europe received a mass influx of refugees from outside of the European region. During the course of 2015, over a million asylum-seekers would come to Europe. The majority came from Syria but many also came from other fragile states like Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a range of sub-Saharan African countries. At first, the primary route to Europe was the Central Mediterranean: people got in small boats in Libya and travelled across to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Then it became the Western Balkans: increasing numbers of Syrians crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece and made their way on foot towards Germany.

From that April, when 700 people drowned crossing to Lampedusa, the media began to proclaim a ‘global refugee crisis’. But in reality this was a European crisis. And it was a crisis of politics rather than a crisis of numbers. The response was muddled and incoherent; European politicians struggled desperately even to identify the real problem, let alone to find solutions to it. And this in turn led to tragedy and chaos across Europe. During that year, over 3,000 people, including many children, drowned while trying to reach Europe on rickety boats manned by gangs whose core business was migrant-smuggling.

Instead of cooperating on a coherent plan, European governments resorted to unilateral panic decisions, their policies being shaped more by the domestic politics of the moment than the search for collective solutions. Greece became the main reception country, its islands overwhelmed, though few refugees aimed to stay there: instead they moved north. Hungary built a razor wire fence to keep them out. But Germany’s response was quite different: from the summer of 2015 Chancellor Merkel effectively offered an open door. Unsurprisingly many more came, and not just from Syria. Perhaps Chancellor Merkel had expected other states to follow her lead. If so, the expectation was misplaced: not sharing Germany’s unique history, they didn’t. As hundreds of thousands came to Germany, the domestic political situation shifted radically. Within months of the open door, Chancellor Merkel had backtracked dramatically, returning thousands of people caught in transit, to Turkey. As public confidence in the asylum system – intended to distinguish ‘refugees’ from broader movements of people – collapsed, far-right parties gained growing support, and by early 2016 Europe had virtually closed its doors.

But while this catastrophe was absorbing political and media attention, the parallel tragedy was the neglect of the nearly 90 per cent of the world’s refugees who remained in the developing world. The most vulnerable, with no means or desire to travel to Europe, remained in an utterly dysfunctional system. For every $135 of public money spent on an asylum-seeker in Europe, just $1 is spent on a refugee in the developing world.fn11 Fewer than one in ten of the 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan receive any material support from the United Nations or its implementing partners. Moreover, most refugees around the world do not have the basic autonomy necessary to help themselves and their communities: they are not allowed to work. They are left dependent on a system that fails them.

When international agencies don’t know what else to do they convene a conference. Despite a series of these high-level conferences convened by the United Nations there is still no clear strategy for the future of the global refugee system.

What, in the twenty-first century, should the world do about refugees? In this book, we seek to answer that question. To get there we start by diagnosis: why is the global refugee system not working today? From that base we suggest what needs to be done to build a system that works.


Before that, though, we need to consider what refuge is for. There have been refugees for as long as there have been political communities. There is documentary evidence of people who needed to flee city-states in Ancient Greece or Rome in search of sanctuary. Since the creation of nation-states, often dated to 1648 and the Treaty of Westphalia, factors such as religious persecution, revolution, state formation, and conflict have occasionally left people needing to leave home in order to survive. At its core, refuge entails the principle that when people face serious harm at home, they should be allowed to flee and receive access to a safe haven, at least until they can go home or be permanently reintegrated elsewhere.

The modern refugee system was designed in the late 1940s. With the onset of the Cold War in 1948, the societies of Eastern Europe found themselves behind the Iron Curtain. Led by the USA, the concern of Western democracies was for opponents of the Communist regimes imposed on these societies by the Soviet Union. The purpose of the refugee system was that the people who were persecuted by these regimes should have the right to live elsewhere, and to be well cared for while a new home could be arranged. Through an international treaty now signed by 145 countries – the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees – and an international organization – the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – governments committed to reciprocally allow people fleeing persecution onto their territories. Reflecting its intention, the legal definition of a refugee was someone who is outside her or his country of nationality and faces a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’. It was unambiguously a product of its time and place, explicitly temporary and at the time intended only to apply to people in Europe.

Time did not stand still. Refuge is as relevant today as it was in the late 1940s: the numbers speak for themselves. But both the causes of flight and the appropriate responses to flight have changed radically. Some refugees are indeed still fleeing persecution by their state. But the overwhelming majority are now fleeing disorder: the fallout from state breakdown. Some refugees still need temporary food and shelter and some need to be resettled permanently in a new country. But most need a haven where they can earn a living until they are able to return home once order has been restored.

The world has changed radically since 1948. As other global institutions designed in the late 1940s hit crisis, they were reformed. But, being out of sight, refugees never received the global attention needed for major change. The Convention and UNHCR are still there, ever less appropriate for modern needs. In the absence of root-and-branch reform, they have drifted into piecemeal adjustments.

In a classic instance of Eurocentrism, a convention explicitly focused on state persecution of individuals in postwar Europe was applied globally and permanently in 1967 without modification. Unsurprisingly, several of the countries that provide the main havens for refugees – notably those in the Middle East and Asia – have not signed it, believing it not to fit the realities of refuge in their regions. Elsewhere, its wording has since been tortured into reinterpretations stretched to fit new circumstances. With wide variation in legal interpretation, policy coherence has been lost. Court rulings have become eccentric: refugees in identical circumstances will be granted asylum in the courts of some nations but refused it in others; even within the same country, they will be granted asylum in some years but not others. Eccentricity is compounded by systematic omissions. For fifteen years, Somalis fleeing the ultimate state collapse did not qualify for asylum in some European countries because they had not been ‘persecuted’. What began as coherent common rules for responding to persecution have evolved into chaotic and indefensible responses to the problem of mass flight from disorder.

Meanwhile, UNHCR found itself faced with refugee situations that had not been envisaged. A model intended for the temporary care of the persecuted was confronted with a mass flight from violence. In response to these emergencies UNHCR came up with a quick fix: camps. Designed for transience, by default they became permanent.

These legacy regimes bequeathed by the Cold War were the full extent of what was available to address the Syrian refugee situation that began in 2011. Their utter inadequacy was reflected in what ensued over the next four years. Unsurprisingly, the situation escalated into an unmanageable crisis.

Though a product of the Cold War, the Convention has noble aims, and some of its principles remain as relevant today. But arcane disputes about how words in a treaty can be reinterpreted to fit today’s challenges miss the central point. The world of the twenty-first century must meet the needs of refugees. And this will be achieved not by pious adherence to the dictums of a bygone era, but by rising to the current challenge, just as our grandparents rose to the very different challenge that they faced. Left to lawyers alone, the limited global energy available for the reform of the refugee system will be dissipated, and so will the limited budgets. The way forward is not to reinterpret past wording, but to build a new system that works. We need an international agency that can guide this task of building anew. UNHCR is not currently equipped to be that agency, but it must become so.

There is a core to that new task in common with the one addressed in 1948. Put simply, refuge is about fulfilling a duty of rescue. Born out of our common humanity, it is based on the simple recognition that we have shared obligations towards our fellow human beings. Just as we cannot stand by and watch a stranger in our own community suffering, so too we have obligations towards distant strangers, when we are able to assist and it is not significantly costly to do so. The content of that obligation should involve meeting immediate needs and then returning people to normality as quickly as possible thereafter.

But during the current refugee crisis, we have lost sight of this underlying purpose. Refuge has become bound up with a broader, and distracting, discussion about the right to migrate. The policy and media focus has been on the 10 per cent who try to reach the developed world, rather than the 90 per cent who do not. ‘Do refugees have a right to travel directly to Europe?’ has been the main question within public debate. Yes, of course refugees have a right to migrate insofar as it is necessary in order to access a safe haven. But it is not an unqualified right to move. It becomes necessary only inasmuch as as we collectively fail to create a system that ensures refugees’ needs are met in a coherent way. Refugees – as refugees – need and should be entitled to expect three things: rescue, autonomy, and an eventual route out of limbo. Currently, the majority of refugees are not getting any of them.

How can we provide these things sustainably and at scale? This is the critical question this book seeks to answer.


Even according to its own metrics, the refugee system is failing badly. The founding statute of UNHCR outlines two main roles: to provide protection to refugees and to find long-term solutions to their plight. Yet neither is being met.

Protection entails ensuring refugees get access to their core rights and needs in exile. But humanitarian assistance programmes around the world are desperately underfunded: even basic food rations are being cut year on year. In urban areas assistance is even more limited. Contrary to popular belief, most refugees are not in camps; over half now live in large cities like Nairobi, Johannesburg, and Beirut. The international community has still not adopted an adequate model for assistance outside camps. Despite the fancy international edifice of agencies, and the warm glow of media attention around them, most of the world’s refugees receive virtually no material assistance at all from any of them.

This would not be such a problem but for the fact that there is almost universal non-compliance with the socio-economic rights specified in the Convention. Most host states place serious restrictions on the right to work; nor are these the only parts of the Convention that are ignored. From Australia to Kenya to Jordan to Hungary, governments turn away refugees at the border, or threaten to expel them, without even assessing their claims.

Solutions are generally used to imply a pathway out of intractable limbo. It is widely accepted that no refugee should have to remain indefinitely warehoused in a camp. Conventionally, there have been three recognized ‘durable solutions’ – repatriation when the conflict ends or there is political transition; resettlement to a third country; and local integration if the host country is prepared to offer a pathway to citizenship. Historically, different solutions have been preferred at different junctures. During the Cold War, the assumption was generally that refugees from the East would be permanently resettled in the West. After the Cold War, the focus shifted to creating the conditions to enable people to go home. Today, the route to durable solutions is largely blocked. In 2015, fewer than 2 per cent of the world’s refugees received access to one of the durable solutions.

The international system has therefore become long-term humanitarian aid. A response designed for the short-term emergency phase of a crisis too often endures over the long term. Today over half of the world’s refugees are in ‘protracted refugee situations’ and for them the average length of stay is over two decades. People are born into camps, grow up in camps, and become adults in camps. Without durable solutions, their lives become focused more on survival than hope.

Let’s take the example of Amira, a Syrian refugee whose situation is typical of many. Amira is a woman with children, like around a quarter of the world’s refugees. She can’t go home, because her home has been destroyed – she comes from the city of Homs. She won’t be resettled to a third country: less than 1 per cent of the world’s refugees will be lucky enough to get that lottery ticket. So she has an impossible choice between three options.

She can do what just 9 per cent of Syrian refugees have done, and go and live in a camp. Assistance may be available but camps offer few prospects. They are in bleak, arid locations. In the now infamous Za’atari refugee camp, you can still hear the sound of mortars across the border late at night. Economic activity is restricted and, globally, over 80 per cent of refugees living in camps end up stuck there for at least five years. Alternatively, Amira could do what more than three quarters of Syrian refugees are currently doing, and live in an urban area in a neighbouring country. But assistance is limited, the formal right to work is usually restricted, and destitution is common. Most host countries refuse to consider permanent local integration. So she’s got a third choice which an increasing number of Syrians are taking – trying to give her family some hope of a future by risking death to travel onwards to another country. And that’s what we’ve seen in Europe.

Around the world, these three options represent the impossible choice with which we present refugees: long-term encampment, urban destitution, or perilous journeys. For refugees, these options are the global refugee regime. The twenty-first century can do better than this. What we need is not to return to the ideas of the late 1940s, but to harness the remarkable opportunities of globalization that did not exist at that time to meet the needs of our new situation. Host governments should not simply be browbeaten into compliance. They limit the choices available because they perceive refugees to be a security threat and an economic burden. And who can blame them when they take on such a large population and receive so little support from the international community?


The moment for a rethink is long overdue. Historically it has proven hard to transform the international system but there is one exception: moments of crisis. In 1971 the international monetary system underwent fundamental reform because governments reached a point at which the costs of the status quo were so great as to make continuity unconscionable. This is not the only example of change: at the end of the Cold War, global trade governance was radically reformed; with the emergence of climate change new institutions have been rapidly negotiated; faced with financial crisis, global leaders agreed in 2009 to replace the G8 with the G20 as the world’s economic coordinator. We have now reached the refugee regime’s ‘1971 moment’. The 2015 crisis has triggered recognition that the status quo is simply not in anyone’s interests, and a new institutional architecture is needed.

Targeted persecution remains a real threat for a minority, but the overwhelming majority of refugees are fleeing a single cause: insecurity in fragile states. The relevant threats are to groups from violent areas rather than from states to targeted individuals.

Nor is the political situation like the late 1940s. The Cold War is long over: extremist religion has replaced extremist ideology, bringing completely different fears. Across much of Europe and the developed world, there has been a collapse in public support for asylum. Nor is this unique to the developed world; many host states in the developing world are finding it hard to sustain domestic political support for large-scale hosting.

Nor are the opportunities restricted to those of the late 1940s. New opportunities offer scope for solutions. Most refugees want to work and find ways of doing so, forgoing camps for urban areas even if it means relying on their own support networks. The globalized economy offers possibilities unimaginable seventy years ago. The internet can enable jobs, education, and money transfer to reach even the remotest communities. There are new actors: business, civil society, diaspora organizations, and refugee-led community organizations are all helping to meet refugees’ needs. There are new techniques: from school choice to food banks to organ donations, creative models of institutional design are solving allocation problems.

Time has passed the refugee system by: it is now in a time-warp. But to address emerging challenges and seize potential opportunities, a new paradigm is urgently needed. The existing model is mired in collective action failure, and bereft of new thinking. The conferences convened to ‘do something’ about the refugee crisis – from the World Humanitarian Summit to the UN High-Level Meeting on Addressing Large Scale Movements of Refugees and Migrants – are ritual re-enactments that changed times have drained of real consequence. Not only is there a lack of practical new thinking, but the very institutions that should be generating it are clinging desperately on to the status quo.

One of the main themes in this book is the idea that refuge must be understood as not only a humanitarian issue but also one of development. Put simply, it is not just about indefinitely providing food, clothing, and shelter. It has to be about restoring people’s autonomy through jobs and education, particularly in the countries in the developing world that repeatedly host the overwhelming majority of refugees. If this is done well, we argue, everyone stands to gain and refugees can be empowered to help themselves and contribute to their societies.

But there is no one-size-fits-all solution; different models will be effective for different countries. What works in Uganda will not be what works in Jordan. The key is to find models that simultaneously benefit host states and refugees, while enabling safe havens to remain politically viable. But we recognize that investing in autonomy in neighbouring countries is not sufficient. Although ideally refugees will eventually return home, sometimes they just won’t be able to, at least not within a reasonable period. At that point, a pathway out of limbo – including through resettlement – remains imperative.

In this book we do three things. In Part I we take you back through the current refugee crisis, step by increasingly grim step, as a modern Greek tragedy unfolds. We show why, given the policies and institutions inherited from the late 1940s, this tragedy was inevitable.

In Part II we show that it does not have to be like this. An alternative approach is there for the building. We present four big new ideas – relating to the duty of rescue, safe havens, autonomy in exile, and post-conflict incubation – with a chapter for each of them beginning with moral values. There, and throughout the book, we eschew moral grandstanding: we do not preach the moral standards of sainthood. Far from it: we set out the minimal moral norms that are necessary for a refugee response that meets a few basic requirements. A disastrous consequence of the crisis is that the refugee issue has got tangled up with the amorphous and divisive topics of globalization and migration. Part of our purpose is to restore refuge to its proper place as a well-defined task that is well within our capacities to undertake, and that an overwhelming majority of mankind can agree upon.

Dag Hammarskjöld once said of the United Nations, it was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell’. We have an analogously modest ambition. The saintly can go beyond what we propose, and we will cheer them along; but our book is for people who privately might recognize that their moral standards are typical rather than exceptional.

Just as we eschew moral grandstanding, so we eschew dreams of global government. The world is as it is: a menagerie of states with different interests and different capacities. They find cooperative action difficult. We try, within the constraints of being thinkers rather than doers, to suggest how such a world might go about meeting the needs of refuge. It does not require grand new structures, just that enough politicians focus on it for a while. In Part III we rerun the history of the crisis and show how the approach we suggest would have made a difference. While that is water under the bridge, there is a lot of the future left.