The Wealth of Refugees, by Alexander Betts

David Owen on a compelling case for interdisciplinary analysis of refugee economies

June 28, 2021
Source: iStock

Alexander Betts’ new book demonstrates his indefatigable commitment to addressing the predicaments of contemporary refugee protection. Divided into four parts – on ethics, economics, politics and policy – it proposes a framework for thinking about sustainable refugee protection under contemporary conditions. It includes important original research from East Africa on the economic lives of refugees and on the politics required to enhance development in neighbouring states that host refugees. And there are also practical reflections on the kinds of policy commitment needed to support sustainable refugee protection (and how that task has been further complicated by the Covid pandemic).

The driving concern of Betts’ work is how to generate a sustainable system of refugee protection: one that secures refugees’ rights and well-being; can maintain political support at local, national and international levels; and can operate at scale in a durable way. His approach takes as relatively fixed the current political constraints in a context where the numbers of those seeking protection are likely to continue rising. I am sceptical about whether Betts needs to draw the constraints as tightly as he does, since other trends such as the increasing importance of regional governance, often with relaxed constraints on mobility (for example through the Economic Community of West African States and the MERCOSUR South American trade bloc), might provide more economic and political opportunities than his state-centred focus acknowledges. However, he is surely right to claim that development-based solutions for the vast majority of refugees who inhabit states in the global South must be part of a sustainable protection system.

This focus motivates new empirical research on refugee economies in both rural and urban settings using the contrasting cases of: Uganda, which allows refugees to work and move within the state; Kenya, which has a long-standing encampment policy; and Ethiopia, which is transitioning from encampment to a work and movement policy. There are also studies of particular practical innovations in Kalobeyei (Kenya) and Dollo Ado (Ethiopia).

Essentially, Betts’ analysis puts the popular concept of “refugee self-reliance” under critical scrutiny. While his findings support the view that providing refugees with the rights to work and move has generally positive effects on their welfare, they also show that these benefits – and hence the sustainability of refugee “self-reliance” – are very significantly limited both by obstacles to refugees’ socio-economic participation in urban contexts and by the lack of regional investment and infrastructure in rural contexts.

Since access to such rights depends on local and national governments, Betts provides an analysis of the conditions that support their provision. He also develops an international policy agenda designed to persuade national and local governments to provide these rights through development funding from international donors who have political interests in reducing onward migration to the global North and encouraging more cost-effective forms of humanitarian protection.

This work is as significant for the agenda it sets as for the results it reports. Betts makes a compelling case that interdisciplinary analysis of refugee economies has a central place in the future of refugee studies. But it is to be hoped this analysis will be expanded to consider the regional dimensions of the economic lives of refugees that remain marginal to his focus.

David Owen is professor of social and political philosophy at the University of Southampton. His most recent book is What Do We Owe to Refugees? (2020).

The Wealth of Refugees: How Displaced People Can Build Economies
By Alexander Betts
Oxford University Press, 448pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780198870685
Published 22 April 2021


Print headline: In a safer place – but what now?

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