Professor Robin Cohen, University of Oxford
Professor Robin Cohen, University of Oxford

This is a guest blog by Robin Cohen, emeritus professor of development studies and former director of the International Migration Institute, University of Oxford.

Further read: Is creating a new nation for the world’s refugees a good idea? by Alex Betts, Director of the Refugee Studies Centre

Jason Buzi, an Israeli-born entrepreneur living in the USA, has proposed that a ‘Refugee Nation’ should be created to solve the world’s refugee problem. Let us call this country ‘Refugia’. His solution has generated a mixed response, but his moral outrage, his diagnosis of the scale of the problem and his attempt to energize and galvanize a response adequate to the crisis have gathered at least some support. (Buzi’s proposals are set out here).

My esteemed colleague, Professor Alexander Betts, director of the Refugee Studies Centre, has responded in an informed and considered way (a précis of his interview with Radio 4 is provided in the news and media section of the Refugee Studies Centre). This blog furthers the dialogue.  Betts does not dispute the need for creative and innovative ideas to provide succour to the 60 million refugees (the highest number since the Second World War) but remains ‘unconvinced by the proposed solution’. His objections to Buzi’s proposal are three-fold:

Negative historical precedent
What happens to the long-standing population when a new nation is created? Betts evokes the negative historical experiences of Israel and Liberia. He is right in both his examples, while Buzi undermines his own case by praising Israel and describing it as ‘essentially founded as a refugee nation’, thus suggesting an analogy with his proposal. This account completely elides the colonizing and settler origins of Israeli society before the Second World War and the fate of the Palestinians. Liberia was equally deleterious for the local population as the Americo-Liberians, sent there by the American Colonization Society, dominated and oppressed the locals (though, to be fair, this is not an example that Buzi used).

If we have to use historical precedent, a better case would be the mixed experience of the Mandates established by the League of Nations in response to the unsettled conditions following the First World War, arguably a comparable situation to our current crisis. The mandated territories were Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan, Mesopotamia, British Togoland, French Togoland, British Cameroons, French Cameroun, Ruanda-Urundi, Tanganyika, South West Africa, South Pacific Mandate, Territory of New Guinea, Nauru and Western Samoa. This is hardly a list of great success stories, though some perfectly viable countries did emerge from the Mandate experience. Rather than assess the final outcomes, I draw some important principles and lessons. There has to be a legitimating body – the League of Nations, now the United Nations. The initial authority should not be an established nation – the mandated territories looked far too much like another form of colonization by the winners of the 1914–18 war. More positively, the idea of ‘trust’ was borne – a double mandate to the international community and to the people of the territory who were, on an agreed timetable, destined to inherit the state.

Dangerous diversity
Betts is also worried that yoking together populations of diverse origins in a new refugee nation could potentially create conditions of conflict because of cultural and perhaps religious difference (he does not specify), leading to further displacement and the creation of another wave of refugees. This clearly is a possibility, but it is doubtful that this is intrinsically more probable than conflict with settled populations in neighbouring countries or xenophobia and violence in more distant countries. There are many examples of successful plural societies (including Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, the USA and Australia). Moreover, Buzi may be right in assuming that self-selection (his scheme is entirely voluntary) will mean that most ‘Refugians’ will be keen to start new and peaceful lives in a new setting.

Although Betts concedes that ‘states are showing declining willingness to provide territory to refugees’ this seems to me wholly to understate the issue. In Lebanon, the very existence of the state is being challenged. Jordan has shown amazing hospitality to the waves of newcomers but there are clear political limits to its generosity. In Western Europe, the numbers of refugees and migrants are still relatively small, but the growth of right-wing populist parties has now become so ubiquitous and so strident that it is only a small exaggeration to conjure up the spectre of fascism. However much we disapprove of angry manifestations of xenophobia, as the South African authorities found to their cost, ignoring nativism can result in very large losses of life.

More obvious solutions
Betts, finally, is right in saying that increasing support to the Jordans of this world is a more obvious way of giving support to refugees from contiguous states (the overwhelming majority of refugees). It is worth bearing in mind, however, that not all states can administer immense grants successfully or provide effective, continuous security. Need I mention the depredations of ISIL? Again, as Buzi points out (and Betts ignores), there is a strong reluctance of neighbouring states to grant full citizenship to refugees though, in some cases, as Tanzania shows, a grudging and gradual de facto citizenship might emerge. One of the attractive aspects of Buzi’s proposal is that he starts from the principle of full, active citizenship being granted from Day One.

Commonalities and ways forward
Both Buzi and Betts emphasize migrant agency. Betts has elsewhere written acutely on how Syrian refugees have reshaped their camps into communities in defiance of the sterile lines of tents put up in military fashion by the international agencies. As he says, ‘people have skills, talents, aspirations’, but this is not significantly different from Buzi noting that doctors, lawyers, engineers and academics are being penned up in camps ‘without using their abilities’. Why not, Buzi asks, let them use their talent to build a new nation?

Buzi is not always right but he is creatively provocative. It is true that the NGOs and international agencies have been placed in impossible positions, but they have also been slaves to old ideas and modes of coping. The scale of the refugee crisis and the growing resistance of host populations (wearied by war, insecurity or austerity) to new appeals to their generosity have produced a new dynamic. It is obviously an exaggeration to say that creating a refugee nation is THE solution. But we need also to recognize the limits to stretching the goodwill of neighbouring and distant states. Those efforts should nonetheless continue, as must attempts to create political stability in regions like the Middle East and the Great Lakes.

Alongside such traditional solutions, I think we need to give Refugia a try – as a model, a ‘new Jerusalem’, an alternative that might spawn imitations and improvements. By this, I do NOT mean a sordid camp, but a country that offers citizenship, security, employment and a future for young people. Of course, there are legitimate questions of finding a location that does not adversely affect a local population, of leadership and full democracy, of whether full religious freedoms can be offered when overzealous beliefs have triggered such murderous consequences. I have a starting point on these issues that departs from Buzi’s agenda. He is too beguiled by money and benign billionaires. I think a temporary UN Trust, a High Commissioner of the stature of Mary Robinson, protection by the Blue Berets until a standing army can be raised and a timetable for full control by Refugians show a better way forward. I think he is right to call on us to act to ameliorate the major moral mutilation of our times.

Citation: Cohen, R. (2015) ‘Refugia: the limits and possibilities of Buzi’s Refugee Nation’, Postcards from, 30 July 2015: