On February 19, the RSC Director, Alexander Betts, gave a powerful talk on the refugee crisis in a packed closing session of the TED 2016 conference in Vancouver. This talk is now available to view online.
In the talk, Betts calls for a new vision, in which refugees are not seen as an inevitable burden, but are recognised as individuals with skills, talents and ambitions, deserving of more than the derisory choices currently available to them.
“Sometimes I feel ashamed to be a European. In the last year, more than a million people have arrived in Europe needing our help, and our response has been pathetic.
“There are just so many contradictions. We mourn the tragic death of Aylan Kurdi, but then subsequently allow over 200 more children to drown en route to Europe. We have international treaties that recognise refugees to be a shared responsibility, but accept that tiny Lebanon should host more Syrians than the whole of Europe. We lament the existence of human smuggling networks, but then make it the only viable route to seek asylum. We have labour shortages, but exclude people who fit our economic and demographic needs. We proclaim our liberal values in opposition to fundamentalist Islam, but adopt repressive policies that detain children, divide families, and seize property.
“What has gone wrong? How and why have we ended up with such an inhumane response to a humanitarian crisis?”
Betts then asks two fundamental questions: “First, why is the global refugee regime not working today? Second, what needs to be done to fix it?”
“The current system is failing”, he says. “In theory, refugees have a right to seek asylum. In practice, immigration control blocks the path to safety. In theory, refugees are meant to receive a pathway to long-term integration or return. In practice, they get trapped indefinitely in limbo. In theory, refugees are a shared global responsibility. In practice, geography means that countries proximate to conflict take the overwhelming number of refugees. The system is not failing because the basic rules are wrong but because we are choosing not to apply them.”
He goes on to look at how the existing system works from the perspective of a refugee, demonstrating the impossible choices they face – encampment, usually in bleak locations with very limited prospects; urban destitution; or perilous journeys.
He then presents “four ‘out of the box’ ideas for how we can expand refugees’ choices and still make everyone else better off”. These are:
1) Enabling environments – “rather than just providing long-term humanitarian assistance in camps, we must provide opportunities for human flourishing… education, connectivity, electricity, transportation, access to capital, and the right to work”;
2) Economic zones – special economic zones to enable refugees to work and to contribute to national development in areas of countries, such as Jordan, that are lacking labour and inward investment;
3) Preference matching – applying Alvin Roth’s idea of ‘matching markets’ to “enable refugees’ destination preferences to be matched with state preferences… on factors such as skills and languages” (with certain essential caveats);
4) Humanitarian visas – providing a legal means for asylum seekers to travel to Europe and avoid irregular, perilous journeys (as already enacted by Brazil).
Betts concludes: “we need a new vision. The false choice offered to refugees today is unacceptable. It makes everyone worse off. Yes, there are political constraints. But even recognising those, there is more we can do. It is in everyone’s interests to reframe the options, and redesign for a global era.”
In reflecting back on his time at TED2016, Betts says, “TED was remarkable. I was only invited at the last minute and it was a huge challenge to pull the talk together in less than a fortnight. But I met some amazing people in Vancouver, and I’m really glad they found a way to include the refugee issue on the programme.”